HC Deb 06 March 2000 vol 345 cc745-7
1. Fiona Mactaggart (Slough)

What action he is taking in co-operation with other Departments to meet the Government's objective of eliminating child poverty. [111829]

9. Mr. Derek Twigg (Halton)

What progress the Government are making in tackling child poverty. [111839]

The Secretary of State for Social Security (Mr. Alistair Darling)

We have pledged to eradicate child poverty over the next 20 years and to halve it within 10 years. Nearly 1 million children will be lifted out of poverty by the end of this Parliament as a result of measures already announced.

Fiona Mactaggart

I congratulate the Government on their ambitious target for tackling child poverty. Does the Secretary of State agree that ending child poverty is not just a question of making more money available to families with children, but also a question of tackling poverty of opportunity and of aspiration so that children have access to learning and to a rich cultural life? What is my right hon. Friend doing with other Departments to deliver that for children in Britain today?

Mr. Darling

My hon. Friend is right. What holds children back is not just the lack of income but the lack of educational opportunities and, in some cases, poor housing and other disadvantages. We are working across Government to ensure that people's opportunities are improved. My hon. Friend will be aware that, last September, the Government published a paper entitled "Opportunity for All" which set out how we are working with other Departments—particularly the Department for Education and Employment—on initiatives such as sure start, which are designed to ensure that children who are born into disadvantaged backgrounds get the help that they need, through their parents, to raise their expectations and increase the opportunities available to them.

Mr. Twigg

I, too, welcome the Government's statement that they intend to eliminate child poverty. That is in stark contrast to the Conservative Government, who did not recognise that such a thing as poverty existed. I welcome the fact that 13,000 families in my constituency are benefiting from the increase in child benefit, and 3,500 families will be helped by the working families tax credit. I am particularly pleased that £2.2 million will be invested in my constituency on the sure start programme, benefiting around 1,400 families. That will be important in tackling the various problems that cause poverty. Does my right hon. Friend agree that local authorities have an important role in the sure start programme and that it is important that they are involved—not least because many have anti-poverty strategies?

Mr. Darling

My hon. Friend is right to say that it is important for the Government and local authorities to work together. I am glad that he mentioned sure start. As constituency Members of Parliament, we see every day the problems that arise where young children are born into homes where not only is there not enough money, but very often nobody is in work. Those children have low expectations and they will not do as well as other children. The sure start programme is designed to ensure that children in that position get the extra help that they need from the time that they are born until they go into nursery school and primary school. The Government are committed to eradicating child poverty, and that is essential. It is not just a moral issue—it makes economic sense; something the Conservatives never realised in nearly 20 years in government.

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury)

I am sure that everyone welcomes those targets in principle, but will the Secretary of State tell us how the steady growth in means-tested benefits will help to eliminate child poverty when factors such as the working families tax credit, in combination with other taxes and benefits, leave an ever-increasing proportion of households facing marginal rates of tax and benefit withdrawal of more than 80 per cent? What sort of message is he sending to the next rising generation about helping themselves?

Mr. Darling

The clear message that the working families tax credit sends is that work pays. The problem that we faced—the problem that the Conservative party left us—was that there were far too many households where nobody worked and where nobody had worked for a long time. It was beyond doubt that some people were in the absurd situation of finding themselves worse off as a result of going into work than they would have been on benefits. Since 1997, the Government have ensured that the barriers that people face when going into work are reduced and that work is made to pay. The working families tax credit will benefit 1.5 million families, who will be better off as a result of going into work. That makes sense in terms of getting them off the dole and into work, and it is good for the families concerned who come to accept that work is a central part of life—again, something that the previous Government did nothing about in almost 20 years.

Mr. David Willetts (Havant)

Will the Secretary of State explain briefly the distinct roles in tackling child poverty of child benefit, the working families tax credit, the child care credit, the children's tax credit, the integrated child credit and the employment credit? How on earth does he expect an average family to understand this Heath Robinson structure? Why does he not go for the boldest reform of them all, and create a structure that families can understand?

Mr. Darling

The one thing that all those benefits and help have in common is that the Tories opposed every one of them. As I said to the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier), we are determined to ensure that work pays and we want to use every lever at our disposal to achieve that end. The number of children living in poverty trebled under the previous Government, and that was because of a lack of income in the house and far too many people without work—something that we are not prepared to tolerate.

Mr. Willetts

The Secretary of State talks about using every lever at his disposal, but a report from the Government said that problems of co-ordination are becoming more acute. The Prime Minister has set up the social exclusion unit; the Chancellor has taken over benefits policy for the Budget, and a poverty tsarina is running policy on poverty from the Cabinet Office, so the most radical idea in the Labour manifesto will be dismantling the Secretary of State's Department. What does that tell us about his record?

Mr. Darling

The hon. Gentleman ignores the fact that, during the nearly 20 years that they were in power, the Tories did nothing about the eradication of child poverty. Indeed, one of my predecessors, now Lord Moore, famously tried to prove that poverty did not exist. This Government accept that many people are excluded when they should not be, and that is why we set up the social exclusion unit to deal with problems such as homelessness. We are determined, through the Department of Social Security, the Treasury and every Department, to eradicate poverty, and all Departments are working together towards that objective. It is interesting that all that the Tories can do is sneer at those efforts to give children and other people the opportunities that the Tory Government denied them.