Peter Dowd (Bootle) (Lab): I beg to move,
That this House has considered levels of child poverty.
“Even if we are not destitute, we still experience poverty if we cannot afford things that society regards as essential. The fact that we do not suffer the conditions of a hundred years ago is irrelevant… So poverty is relative—and those who pretend otherwise are wrong.”
I start by agreeing with the Prime Minister, who hit the nail on the head when he said that in his 2006 Scarman lecture. Consideration of the levels of child poverty is a matter of huge significance. A reasonable definition of poverty proposed by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation is
“when a person’s resources are not enough to meet their basic needs.”
I do not want our consideration to turn into a political football, but given the political choices that the Government have made in this policy area, it would be almost impossible not to stray on to that pitch. I take it as read that, at some point or other, a Government Member will mention the apparent mess in which Labour left the country; how the Government have got the country back on track and saved the day but that there is still much to do; how the country needs to fix the roof while the sun shines; how we have to live within our means; and, of course, every other cliché to which Ministers can lay their tongues. Unlike the world economic crisis of 2008, which was clearly and wholly the fault of the last Labour Government, even I acknowledge that the current international economic uncertainty has little to do with Government policies, but that cannot be an excuse or an alibi for the Government to shirk from ensuring that child poverty does not increase.
Nick Thomas-Symonds (Torfaen) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. Does my hon. Friend share my concern about what the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission said just before Christmas:
“It has long been obvious that the existing child poverty targets are not going to be met. In fact they will be missed by a country mile”?
Peter Dowd: It is a damning indictment. If just one organisation was saying that, perhaps we could bypass it, but organisation after organisation is identifying that as a cause of concern. Somewhat topically, if the Government can exempt the most powerful of commercial institutions from paying their due taxes or can slope away from challenging the practices of bankers, who are the real culprits in the economic chaos of 2008, surely they can protect our children from the worst effects of those who seem unable or unwilling to pay decent wages.
The existence of any level of child poverty in one of the world’s wealthiest countries should be a source of deep concern to everyone in this room, but it should also be a source of shame that the levels of child poverty in this country are high and rising. I have many friends who either were or are teachers or health and social care professionals—they work or have worked to make the lives of children better, easier and gentler—but such professionals have a hard task. They have spent much of their careers seeing the number of children in poverty beginning to drop. For example, poverty reduced dramatically between 1998 and 2011, when 1.1 million children were lifted out of poverty, but that has changed over the past few years, as my hon. Friend said. Austerity has taken its toll, particularly on those who can least afford it. Figures from the Department for Work and Pensions indicate that, since 2010, child poverty has, at best, flatlined. Meanwhile, the number of children in absolute poverty has risen by half a million since 2010. That is 100,000 children every year, more than 8,000 children a month, almost 2,000 children every week or, put another way, 300 children a day for five years—year in, year out—which cannot be right.
Let us not beat about the bush. The unspoken question on many minds is whether that poverty is due to the fecklessness of parents. Well, I think not in most cases. More than two thirds of children affected by poverty live in households where at least one member is in work. God knows what type of work permits and enables such poverty, but they are, none the less, in work. End Child Poverty, an organisation considering such issues, is particularly concerned about the rising poverty in working families. As the Joseph Rowntree Foundation report, “A UK without Poverty,” noted,
“Too often, public debate talks about ‘the poor’ as if they were a separate group of people with a completely different way of life.”
Imran Hussain (Bradford East) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. Does my hon. Friend agree that low-wage, low-skill economies lead to an increase in child poverty? In my constituency, Bradford East, we have an absolute child poverty rate of 28.6%, compared with a national average of 18.2%, which is unacceptable. Does he agree that one solution is not this rhetoric of more employment, which the Government keep telling us, but to provide high-skill, high-wage jobs, so that families cannot just survive but live properly and children are brought out of poverty?
Nick Thomas-Symonds: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way again. He is making an important speech on an important topic, and I congratulate him on securing this debate. He has mentioned poverty suffered by people who are in work. Does he agree that the cuts that the Government are introducing to the work allowance of universal credit from April 2016 will make that situation worse? Perhaps that explains the enormous turnout of Tory Back Benchers to support the Minister today.
“In reality almost anyone can experience poverty—over half of the population spent at least one year in relative income poverty between 1991 and 2003.”
Even if we accept that fecklessness is a factor, it is only part of the picture, and not a very big part. It becomes another alibi for doing little about the problem. Blaming poor people for being poor, even when they are working hard, is unconscionable. Shakespeare is always a good source for thought:
“And, being rich, my virtue then shall be,
To say there is no vice, but beggary.”
My late mother was a war widow. She died at the age of 95 and had been a widow for 50 years. Her mother was a war widow and a war mother—she died at the age of 106 and had been a widow for 67 years. Much, if not most, of their time was spent in relative poverty, with poverty for their children, too. Was that right? As the youngest, I feel that I was lucky, but luck should have nothing to do with it. That cannot be right.
The country’s economic structure plays a significant part in poverty. For example, the Government are still not concentrating on the effects of the productivity gap, which accounts for billions of pounds in lost GDP. My hon. Friend the Member for Bradford East (Imran Hussain) raised that issue earlier. Output per worker remains 2% below the pre-crisis levels of 2008, whereas in the rest of the G7, it is 5% higher. The Economist has said:
“The French could take Friday off and still produce more than Britons do in a week.”
“Bank of England calculations suggest if productivity had kept pace with the pre-2008 trend, the UK population might on average be 17% better off than it is today.”
Jo Cox (Batley and Spen) (Lab): I have similar statistics to my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford East (Imran Hussain). In my constituency, one third of all children, 33%, live in poverty, which is heartbreaking and shocking for the many hard-working families there. Does my hon. Friend the Member for Bootle (Peter Dowd) welcome the major defeat in the Lords last night of the Government’s attempt to abolish income-related child poverty targets, and does he agree that it is simply not credible to tackle child poverty without acknowledging the worst issue, a lack of money? For the Government to attempt to abolish that target is simply reprehensible.
Peter Dowd: I agree with my hon. Friend, but I think a pattern is beginning to develop with this Government: they redefine everything when it does not suit them. So, for example, affordable housing now means a house costing £400,000 or £500,000. Everything is redefined to suit the Government’s agenda.
Patricia Gibson (North Ayrshire and Arran) (SNP): To follow on from the point made by the hon. Member for Batley and Spen (Jo Cox), is the hon. Gentleman as concerned as child poverty charities are by the Government’s attempt to redefine child poverty? It is important to publish annual figures on income-related child poverty, if for no other reason than the long-term impact of such poverty on health, development, educational outcomes and life chances.
Peter Dowd: The hon. Lady makes an important point. As I said earlier, even the Prime Minister accepts that there is relative poverty, and all the jiggery-pokery with definitions is not going to make that untrue.
Liz McInnes (Heywood and Middleton) (Lab): Is my hon. Friend aware that Child Poverty Action Group has stated that it costs £29 billion a year to respond to the issues caused by child poverty? CPAG says that it is a false economy to drive up child poverty and that this Government should be considering measures to drive it down.
The Government’s January 2014 evidence review of the drivers of poverty found that a lack of sufficient income from parental employment, not just worklessness, is the most important obstacle to getting children out of poverty. Of course, to pick up on what my hon. Friend said, the Government say that a high-skilled, high-wage economy will lift family incomes—ergo, poverty will fade away. In the world where many of my constituents live, it does not quite work like that. I am afraid that even combined with increased personal tax allowances, the increase in the minimum wage, or whatever the Government want to call it—another redefinition—does not go far enough to alleviate child poverty to any substantial degree.
There can be no doubt that child poverty is rising and that it has an effect on educational outcomes, health outcomes and job prospects in the longer term. Independent projections from the Institute for Fiscal Studies indicate that, as has been mentioned, child poverty is beginning to rise. Research by End Child Poverty identified that 4.1 million families and 7.7 million children have been affected by below-inflation rises in both child benefit and child tax credit over the past few years. Interestingly, poverty of aspiration by the Government in policy terms begets financial poverty, because it restricts the use of the very tools that could tackle the drivers of poverty.
In my constituency, child poverty in one ward has reached 40%. Across the constituency, it is around 30%. In other words, almost 7,000 children in my constituency live in poverty. That cannot be right. Remembering the point I made earlier about the number of children in working families who still live in poverty, youth unemployment hovers between 8% and 9% and adult unemployment at about 7%. The median wage is £470, below the national median level of £520 and the regional level of £480. What message is that sending to our children: “Start your life in poverty; get a job on low wages; and you’ll still be in poverty—and so, in turn, will your children.”? It is hardly the most encouraging of straplines for young people.
In 2015, £7 million in early intervention funding was allocated to Sefton Council, in whose area my constituency sits. That is a reduction of £10 million since 2010 in early intervention, the very thing we should be getting to grips with. How can that funding cut help alleviate child poverty? Problem debt in Bootle is £12.5 million. The Children’s Society suggests:
“Too often, when families are struggling with repayments, the response from creditors is unhelpful…a breathing space scheme”
“struggling families an extended period of protection from default charges, mounting interest, collections and enforcement action”,
I believe that my constituency is not an outlier in statistical terms; it is typical of many areas, both rural and urban. It is lazy to suggest that people are shirkers. Levels of child poverty in this country are dreadful. They are a blot on the integrity of our society. The Government cannot solve all the problems, nor does anyone expect them to, but poverty costs money. As my hon. Friend the Member for Heywood and Middleton (Liz McInnes) said earlier, the cost to the UK of poverty is reckoned by one assessment at about £29 billion pounds: almost £6 billion in lost tax, £15 billion for extra spending on services to deal with the consequences of poverty and £8.5 billion in lost earnings to individuals. What a waste! Surely, even forgetting the human stories and experiences behind those figures, the statistics and costs are enough to make any Government reconsider their strategy for dealing with the child poverty that our country faces.
“poverty is not natural. It is man-made, and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings.”
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