HL Deb 28 September 2000 vol 616 cc942-4

3.28 p.m.

Baroness Thornton asked Her Majesty's Government:

Following the announcement last week of a significant reduction in child poverty, what plans they have to ensure that this progress is maintained and further reductions made.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Social Security (Baroness Hollis of Heigham)

My Lords, I am delighted to tell the House that measures in our last four Budgets will have lifted 1.2 million children out of poverty by next year. Our target is to lift at least a quarter of all children out of poverty by 2004 as part of our commitment to eradicating child poverty in a generation.

Baroness Thornton

My Lords, I thank the Minister for her reply and congratulate the Government on their aspiration to eliminate child poverty. I am sure that no one here can doubt the importance of a programme which aspires to eliminate child poverty. However, many children and families have yet to be reached. They are isolated, in difficulty and still living in poverty.

The Sure Start programme is one of the ways in which the Government have sought to alleviate the problems for such children. How is it being integrated into the Government's poverty programme? In particular, are voluntary sector and community organisations involved in other programmes, as they have been in the Sure Start programme?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, we all know that poverty is multi-faceted. It is not just about low income, but has repercussions in loss of life chances, health and education that flow from it. That is why I am pleased to tell the House that in this summer's spending review the number of Sure Start programmes was doubled, from 250 to 500. As a result, about 30 per cent of all disadvantaged children will be within a Sure Start programme by 2004. Many of those programmes are being led by voluntary and local authority consortia. I hope that as a result we will give those children the head start that they desperately need and are currently denied.

Lord Higgins

My Lords, in his statement in Brighton, the Chancellor said that there were already 1.2 million children lifted out of poverty". Will the Minister confirm that that is not correct? More importantly, will she state precisely the Government's definition of child poverty and confirm that that definition should be used in assessing the Government's future efforts to halve child poverty over 10 years?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

Yes, my Lords. The Chancellor was saying that as a result of the four Budgets that he has already delivered, 1.2 million children will be lifted out of poverty. On the second point, the definition of poverty can be either 50 per cent of mean average earnings or 60 per cent below median earnings. The Government use the latter figure for assessing poverty in relative terms. It is also used for European poverty statistics, because the results are not skewed by a few high incomes at the top.

Earl Russell

My Lords, I congratulate the Government on reducing the proportion of children in households earning less than 60 per cent of median income, but I invite the Minister to comment on the figures on other low income thresholds on page 200 of the Government's report. Does she agree that the figures for those below 50 per cent of median income are much the same as before and there has been an increase in the proportion of children in households earning less than 40 per cent of average income? Does she agree that those figures show either no significant change or that the rich are growing richer and the poor are growing poorer? Can she give any objective reason for preferring the indicator that the Government have chosen over the collective indicators?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, the Government use the 60 per cent below median earnings figure because it is used in most European definitions of family poverty. The noble Earl's figures are correct. If he looks at page 200, he will also note that the figures are for 1998–99, which are the most recent figures available. They therefore record the situation before the Government's measures kicked in. For example, income support rates for children under 11 have virtually doubled since April 1997, but most of that increase has occurred since the statistics in the report were collected and recorded.

Baroness Crawley

My Lords, perhaps I may press my noble friend to expand on what is being done to help the more than 1.5 million lone parent families in this country? As we know, the poorest children in this country are those of lone parent families. I am sure that we all agree that the best way to take children out of poverty is to reconnect their parents with work. I acknowledge that the Government have presided over a decrease to only 17 per cent of workless families, but will my noble friend tell us what the Government are now doing to assist lone parents?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, we know that 20 per cent of all children live in lone parent families, but we also know that 50 per cent of all children who are poor live in lone parent families. There are two reasons for that. One is that the children are living in families without work. The second is that they are living in fractured families and do not enjoy the maintenance support that they should. That is why we have a twofold programme. First, as my noble friend said, we want to reconnect lone parents with the world of work through the New Deal, the ONE programme and work-focused interviews. Secondly, we are reforming the Child Support Agency to ensure that those 1 million children who are not getting the maintenance that they should get will receive it in future. If we succeed in both those measures —and I believe that we have the support of the whole House—we can ensure together that children get a springboard into a decent future.

Lord Roberts of Conwy

My Lords, it is only a matter of days since the director of the Child Poverty Action Group was quoted as saying that the number of children in poverty has increased by 100,000 to 4.5 million since this Government came to office and that our child poverty rate is the highest in Europe. Is that true?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, it is true that we have inherited a situation in which we have double the number of—

Noble Lords


Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, I know that the Conservatives do not find that information particularly comfortable, but we inherited a situation in which we had twice as many children in poverty as France or Germany. That is why we have taken initiatives such as the working families tax credit and the Sure Start programme. Had the noble Lord listened to the reply that I attempted to give to the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, and to the noble Earl, Lord Russell, he would have heard that there are two figures for testing child poverty: the Child Poverty Action Group uses the figure of 50 per cent below mean income, whereas the Government use the figure of 60 per cent below median income, which avoids the statistics being skewed by a few at the top. Under those figures and under the Government's programme, not only are 250,000 fewer children living in poverty, even more importantly, 200,000 fewer children are living on benefits for more than two years. As we all know, it is not just how many children are on benefit, but how long they persist on benefit that determines their life chances.

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