HC Deb 26 April 2004 vol 420 cc625-8
7. Vera Baird (Redcar) (Lab)

What assessment he has made of the Government's progress towards eradicating child poverty. [167681]

The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. Andrew Smith)

As a result of our policies, the poorest families are, on average, £2,900 a year better off, and there are now 600,000 fewer children living on relatively low incomes than in 1997. I am confident that the measures that we announced in the Budget, not least the increase of £3.50 a week in the child element of the tax credit, benefiting more than 7 million children, will enable us to make further progress towards halving child poverty by 2010 and eradicating it by 2020.

Vera Baird

I am very grateful for that answer. The Work and Pensions Committee, on which I am privileged to serve, recently reported on child poverty, and it seems that congratulations will be due, because almost everyone expects the target of cutting child poverty by a quarter by this year to be met. The Committee thought that it would be harder to meet the target of halving child poverty by 2010, and it suspected—

Mr. Speaker

Order. I have asked the hon. and learned Lady before to ask a supplementary question rather than telling us about the Committee.

Vera Baird

May I do that?

Mr. Speaker

Yes, the hon. and learned Lady may ask a supplementary question.

Vera Baird

I am grateful for your guidance as ever, Mr. Speaker.

The Committee thought that £10 a child was probably necessary for the poorest children. Is that the scale of the challenge that we face, and can we meet it?

Mr. Smith

I welcome my hon. and learned Friend's comments, and those of the Select Committee. I stress that even the target for reducing child poverty by a quarter this year is demanding. We are pretty confident that we will hit it on a before-housing-costs basis; it is more challenging on an after-housing-costs basis. That is why we have taken so many measures, including the child tax credit increases to which I referred, the provision of additional child care and the new deal for lone parents, which raises their employment rate and is an important route through which to help children out of poverty.

The target for halving child poverty is demanding, but we make no apology to the House or the country for being absolutely determined to progress steadily towards the eradication of child poverty in the UK. It is one of the noblest aspirations of this Government, shared overwhelmingly by the people of this country, and Members on both sides of the House ought to join us in making sure that we achieve it.

Mr. Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con)

In trying to eradicate child poverty, will the Secretary of State recognise that there are specific and particular problems in London? Can he say something about the negotiations that he is having with the Chancellor of the Exchequer to ensure that some of the problems particular to London, such as child care arrangements, are being tackled so that his admirable goal, with which we would all agree, is achieved by 2010?

Mr. Smith

Yes, there is a particular challenge in London, not least because of high housing costs and the transport costs associated with working. That is one reason why we will be rolling out across London the return to work credit, giving extra money to lone parents returning to work, in recognition of the higher costs that they face. In addition, we are giving help through employment zones and, more widely, our employment programmes. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that our dedication to eradicating child poverty applies to London as well as to the rest of the country.

Miss Anne Begg (Aberdeen, South) (Lab)

A Select Committee report showed that one of the major measures that has helped the Government to be on target to meet their goal is the introduction of the child tax credit, working tax credit and child care tax credit. However, those on income support have not yet migrated on to the new child tax credit. Will the Secretary of State make sure that the IT is working smoothly before that decision is taken?

Mr. Smith

Yes, we shall. Of course, people get the equivalent amount through existing administrative arrangements, but my hon. Friend makes a good point: it is important that the system is working properly before those people are transferred, because they are the ones who can least afford any interruption to their payment.

Mr. Paul Goodman (Wycombe) (Con)

The Secretary of State knows that the Select Committee also said: Using the median income before housing costs figure would mask the true extent of child poverty. Will he confirm that that is precisely what the Government have done, that 900,000 children have thereby been removed from the figures at a stroke, and that the End Child Poverty coalition was absolutely right to condemn that fix, saying: Children should be removed from poverty not just removed from the statistics."?

Mr. Smith

If the hon. Gentleman took the trouble to examine our proposed composite child poverty measure, he would see that that measure, which includes relative low income of 70 per cent. of median income and material deprivation, will take account of the costs and resulting poverty where people face high housing costs. We shall take no lectures from a party under which relative poverty doubled, and which gave the poorest families just £27 a week to help with the cost of a child, whereas the Labour Government are giving £58 a week. The increases in child poverty under the Conservatives made Britain's the worst record in Europe.

Mr. Bill O'Brien (Normanton) (Lab)

When assessing children in poverty, will my right hon. Friend take into consideration the problems facing families as a result of the Child Support Agency failing to collect maintenance for children and carers? Will he do something to ensure that that sort of poverty is eradicated by the CSA doing its job and collecting maintenance where the assessment has been made?

Mr. Smith

My hon. Friend makes an important point. It is clear to the whole House that the performance of the CSA leaves a great deal to be desired, not least because of the failings of the IT system that was introduced. We and the chief executive and staff of the CSA, who are doing a good job in difficult circumstances, are determined to maintain the improvement that has been achieved—for example, some 17,000 families now get the child maintenance premium—but the agency needs to do better. We are determined to build on its performance so that, as my hon. Friend advocates, people get the child support they need, which is crucial to combating poverty.

Ms Karen Buck (Regent's Park and Kensington, North) (Lab)

The Government are to be warmly congratulated on the progress made towards achieving the child poverty target for 2004, but the fact remains that 54 per cent. of children in inner London live in poverty. Among the principal reasons for that is that there is less part-time employment available and larger cost hurdles face people taking part-time jobs in London. Will he assure me that his officials are carefully considering ways to make part-time work available and to make it pay for families in inner London?

Mr. Smith

My hon. Friend, as ever, brings extensive knowledge, experience and positive ideas to this crucial debate. As I said, I believe that we are making progress in London, as elsewhere, but, for the reasons that she outlines, the challenges there are greater. I shall continue to look at what we can do to make sure that both part-time and full-time work pay. I mentioned the return to work credit, which has an important role to play.