Poverty – Debate

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood of Kirkhope, for securing this important debate. Previous Governments have tried to tackle this issue with the best of intentions. However, the complexity and scope of this problem have often meant that past strategies have not been successful in addressing this matter. I intend to focus my contribution primarily on poverty among children and the present condition of adult poverty. I care about issues relating to poverty, and the charity which I chair and totally fund provides help and assistance wherever it can.

I welcome the Government’s pledge to maintain the goal of ending child poverty in the UK by 2020, as stated in the coalition agreement. It is widely believed that children often inherit poverty from their parents. Therefore, adult poverty and its causes are of equal importance in successfully addressing child poverty. At present, 5 million adults are illiterate and 17 million struggle with basic literacy. A significant number are parents to some of the poorest children in our communities. Children and young people 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 most likely to follow the same path once they leave full-time compulsory education. The generational cycle of unemployment is a key factor in the rising levels of welfare dependency and poverty in our communities. A significant 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 situation has contributed to the rising level of deprivation in our society and, most unfortunately, it has removed the incentive for those on low incomes to remain in employment.

Poverty is a complex issue. A multifaceted approach to tackling this problem is necessary, as divergent components add to this injustice. I welcome the Government’s increased emphasis on how the merits of localism can bring about the change that is so desperately needed in our communities. Local authorities, agencies and community groups have the potential to play a vital role in ensuring that individuals and the most vulnerable members of society receive the support that they need. It is only fair that such initiatives should have access to adequate training and resources to enable them to continue to fulfil these duties.

Greater emphasis is required on tackling poverty among the ethnic minority communities. For example, levels of child poverty are higher among the black and Asian communities, at 31 per cent and 42 per cent respectively, compared with their white counterparts, among whom the level stands at 20 per cent.

There is a link between family breakdown and child poverty. Research suggests that children from separated 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 to become reliant on state benefits. Does the Minister agree that recognising this pattern may result in reducing the number of children who live in poverty?

Research has proved that child poverty is less likely to be a factor in households where one or both parents engage in some sort of paid employment. It is therefore in the best interests of our young people for the Government to create an effective strategy to support families with children and to identify those who are at risk of losing their jobs. The State of the Nation Report reveals that 1.4 million people have been in receipt of out-of-work benefits for the overwhelming majority of the past 10 years. These figures are compounded by research from the Office for National Statistics that shows a rise in the number of unemployed people by 53,000. That suggests that the number of jobless people is at its highest since 1994.

I strongly welcome plans for the welfare reform Bill as announced in Her Majesty’s gracious Speech, with the intention of simplifying the benefits system in order to improve incentives to work. As an employer, I support proposals to provide work incentives and to get 5 million-plus people into work and out of poverty. Poverty among individuals of working age now stands at its highest level since 1961. I also await the findings of the independent review on poverty in the United Kingdom, which are scheduled for release before the end of this year.

It is worth touching briefly on some of the challenges that face our ageing population. Pensioner poverty is most prevalent among female pensioners. I welcome the 30-year rule relating to the qualifying period for the full state pension, which now applies to both genders. This will help to alleviate poverty among women, who generally live longer than men.

Studies by the Leonard Cheshire Disability charity reveal that disabled people are twice as likely to live in poverty as able-bodied individuals. I am confident that noble Lords will all agree that this is a shocking revelation. We have a moral duty to ensure that disabled people have access to a decent standard of living. I should be grateful if the Minister could tell your Lordships what steps the Government will take to address this unacceptable trend.

We are one of the wealthiest and most powerful nations in the world. We can boast membership of the G7 and G8, and also a seat on the United Nations Security Council. Despite these accolades, too many of our citizens are living in poverty. Successfully ending poverty in all areas of society is one of the biggest challenges facing us today. I am particularly concerned about lifting children out of poverty, as the future success of this country is in their hands. Young people who are poor often have low self-esteem, which can lead to a number of undesirable outcomes, including alcohol and narcotic abuse. We cannot afford to waste the potential of our young people. The poorest children are at a competitive disadvantage, especially in education. We need to adopt a bold approach in addressing this inequality. We have both a civic and an economic duty to deal with the prevalence of poverty in our society, and the Government’s proposals to address this matter effectively are indeed encouraging.