My Lords, I support many aspects of the Bill as a means of addressing the injustice of child poverty in our communities. We have a moral duty to bring the issue of child poverty to the fore while ensuring that the remedies to this endemic problem are implemented by both central and local governments. In the United Kingdom at present, 4 million children are living in poverty, after housing costs. As a highly industrialised country and a member of the G8, this is not only an abject failure but should serve as an embarrassment. This state of affairs was a contributory factor to our ranking bottom for levels of child well-being out of 21 OECD countries in the UNICEF Report Card 7. I hope that the Bill will be strengthened during its passage through your Lordships’ House in order to reassure the people of the United Kingdom that we are taking bold steps to eradicate this inequality which permeates so many young lives.
Clause 7 makes provision for the Child Poverty Commission and Schedule 1 elaborates on the components of the new body. It is important that we ensure that the organisation which is established is not only independent but also fully accountable to all layers of society. There is a genuine concern that the new organisation should not contribute to the bureaucratic burden of those in the voluntary sector and local communities in their work to tackle poverty among young people. The commission should give credence to the multi-faceted approach that is desperately needed successfully to reverse the unacceptable levels of deprivation among our children.
Clause 8 makes it incumbent on the Secretary of State to create a nationwide strategy to address the issue of child poverty. I support subsection (5)(a) as it ensures that due consideration will be given to the employment status and skills of parents when producing the scheme. Children quite often inherit poverty from their parents and, therefore, adult poverty and its causes are of equal importance in adequately addressing child poverty.
At present, 5 million adults are illiterate and 17 million struggle with basic literacy. A significant number of these adults are parents to some of the poorest children in our communities. As a result, the lack of opportunities these children face extends beyond economic poverty and affects their education and future employment prospects. Children who live in households where adults do not engage in any form of employment are not only the most deprived in our society but are more likely to follow this example once they leave compulsory education. This generational cycle of unemployment is a key factor in the rising levels of welfare dependency and deprivation.
However, a number of these parents who are in employment are typically in receipt of low incomes. The incomes of the poorest 20 per cent of families have consistently fallen every year since 2004. This inequality will not be rectified but in fact will be compounded by the Government’s proposal in the Pre-Budget report to increase national insurance contributions by 0.5 per cent for all workers who earn £20,000 or in excess of this figure. There will be families who earn this amount or slightly more who will fall into this bracket. One of the reasons commonly given as to why people on low incomes leave full-time employment is that they believe there is little financial incentive to work. One can argue that the rise in unemployment will have an undesirable effect on child poverty. There is a connection between adult unemployment and child poverty and measures taken to help more people to gain employment will improve the current state of child deprivation.
Clause 9(4) gives details of the relevant groups that the Secretary of State should consult when preparing the child poverty strategy. I am concerned about subsection (4)(c) as it implies that it is optional for the Secretary of State to consult children in regard to the strategy. The strategy can only benefit from the input of children who have experienced deprivation. If this clause remains elective rather than mandatory, the legitimacy of any future strategy may be compromised. Furthermore, it can be argued that failing to consult children could breach their rights under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which states that young people have a right to be represented irrespective of the context. The contribution that children can make to future policy could be vital to measuring its impact. I was pleased to hear the Minister say that the matter of the involvement of children will receive further consideration.
Clause 20 promotes collaboration among local agencies in tackling child poverty through providing local authorities with a duty to liaise with relevant bodies. I welcome this clause as it will promote greater dialogue between these groups when implementing the child poverty strategy to ensure the best outcomes for young individuals.
Child poverty is a complex issue. A multifaceted approach to tackling this problem is necessary, as there are divergent components which add to this injustice. Local authorities and agencies play a vital role in ensuring that children and the most vulnerable members of society receive the support that they need. It is only fair that they receive adequate training and resources to enable them to continue to fulfil these duties. Local authorities must be given the freedom and flexibility to address deprivation among young people without additional layers of bureaucracy. Levels of child poverty are higher among the black and Asian communities at 31 per cent and 42 per cent respectively, as compared with their white counterparts where it stands at 20 per cent. That situation concerns me.
Does the Minister agree that areas where child poverty is prevalent should be given extra resources in order effectively to implement the proposed child poverty strategy? Conversely, the offending rate among Muslim youth is rising. Can the Minister explain to your Lordships’ House what steps the Government will take to address this situation?
One glaring omission from the Bill is the failure to recognise the relationship between family breakdown and child poverty. Research suggests that children from broken families are 75 per cent more likely to fail academically; 70 per cent more likely to engage in drug abuse and 35 per cent more likely to experience long-term unemployment and become reliant on state benefits. Approximately 1 million children live in homes where adults engage in alcohol abuse, whereas close to 350,000 young people have parents who struggle with drug addiction. Does the Minister agree that fixing our broken society will result in reducing the number of children living in poverty? Does he agree that we need to do more to combat alcohol and drug addiction as part of a child poverty strategy?
In 1999, the former Prime Minister made a pledge to end child poverty within 20 years. Research by the Institute for Fiscal Studies suggests that the Government will fail to meet their target of halving child poverty this year by 600,000 children. To call this situation disappointing would be a gross understatement.
Child poverty is not just about money. It encompasses access to education, healthcare and suitable housing. Education can provide a route out of deprivation. As a former visiting lecturer, I attach a great deal of importance to the power of education as a means to enhance the opportunities of young people irrespective of their background. I should like to see admission to tertiary education become a plausible aspiration for all young people who live in poverty.
The failure to make progress in this area reflects the narrow approach of the tax credits system. We cannot afford to waste the potential of our young people. We have both a civic and an economic duty to deal with the prevalence of child poverty in our society. The lack of success in dealing with this predicament calls for us to adopt a bold approach to ensuring that we eliminate this problem in the immediate future.