HL Deb 19 December 2001 vol 630 cc253-88

3.21 p.m.

Lord Harrison rose to call attention to Government policy on child poverty; and to move for Papers.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, children are at the cutting edge of poverty. Whenever a family, a neighbourhood or a country falls into poverty, it is children who feel it most. It is children, voiceless and voteless, who suffer in silence and bewilderment. In a world in which we can transmit in a trice pictures round the world of malnourished, pot-bellied poverty-stricken children and watch them on our TV sets at home, we have failed to use that same cutting edge of technology to eradicate the poverty that debilitates and kills millions of children world-wide each year.

It is time to act. Altruism alone should propel us towards action to defeat child poverty. But if altruism is insufficient, our own self-interest, if not famine, should provide the spur. I believe that the events of 11th September provide a clear link between poverty world-wide and the rootlessness and restlessness that poverty spawns and which evil men exploit. The love of money may be the root of all evil, but the lack of money runs a close second.

Poverty begins at home. I have seen child poverty in Britain, even in some of our wealthiest cities. As a local councillor 20 years ago, I paid home visits to children being brought up in jobless households, housed in accommodation where condensation dripped off the walls of rooms where schoolchildren were expected to live, study and grow up. Poor housing led to fitful education and compromised health. Poverty can grind down even the best of us.

I have seen child poverty in Europe, both inside and outside the European Union. However, I am heartened by the economic progress of countries such as Spain, Italy, Portugal, Greece and Ireland, and the benefits that such wealth has brought to the children of those countries. I hope that the applicant countries of eastern and central Europe will likewise, under the umbrella of the European Union, improve their economies—the key to tackling poverty—and thereby help their children to satisfy the hunger of both brain and belly. We do not say it often enough: the European Union can be, and is, a force for good.

In the light of that, it is salutary to learn, according to the Government's excellent publication Tackling Child Poverty, issued last week in conjunction with the Pre-Budget Report, that, on some measures at least. United Kingdom levels of child poverty are poorer than those of our partners in the rest of the European Union.

I have seen child poverty world-wide: the street children in the favelas of Rio, the estranged children in the refugee camps of Jordan; and in Indo-China, by the banks of the Mekong river, I have sat down and wept at our inability in a modern world to provide for all our children, not the least the limbless children of Cambodia and Laos.

But in the aftermath of the events of 11th September, I sense a renewed enthusiasm to tackle global problems, signalled by the Prime Minister's determination never again to neglect impoverished countries such as Afghanistan. The war on poverty must be waged with the same despatch as the war on terror.

In the political combination of Gordon Brown and Clare Short, is it not legitimate to hope for real progress in the fight against child poverty both at home and abroad? While I pay tribute to the sterling work done by the noble Baroness, Lady Chalker of Wallasey, who can remember a Chancellor and a development Minister working so closely and efficiently together as the present incumbents do? We must not squander the conjunction of competence and conviction which is to be found in Short and Brown. Indeed, we must build on the fresh domestic, European and international consensus on child poverty that is emerging. I am proud that Britain is leading the charge.

At home, the Government have pledged to abolish child poverty in a generation and halve it in 10 years. Save the Children acknowledges that 1.2 million children in the United Kingdom will be lifted out of relative poverty because of the policies pursued by the Labour Government. Examples are the 26 per cent real terms increase in child benefit and the introduction of the child tax credit and the working families' tax credit.

Redistribution in favour of poorer families has been a feature of the Chancellor's many Budgets. But the stealth tax credits do not always get the same billing as the so-called stealth taxes. But still, one in three children in modern Britain is classed as poor—that is, living in a household with an income below half the national average. This compares unfavourably with the one in 10 children deemed poor when Labour left office in 1979—a sorry legacy of the Rip Van Winkle years of neglect, when others who were responsible nodded off on their childcare watch. One in six children in modern Britain live in workless households and, together with some 10,000 children in lone parent families, have slipped into the statistics of poverty.

I ask my noble friend the Minister: what more can the Government do to fulfil their laudable aim of eliminating child poverty? Can additional support for the severely poor—especially for children of lone parent families—be identified as a priority of the new Government? Can income support for families with children, especially those in larger families, be further substantially lifted? Can families with younger children be particularly helped? Will the integrated child credit, when it is introduced in 2003, be set at a level consistent with a healthy minimum income standard? More precisely, should not the child tax credit legislation be extended to cover all children up to the age of 18? Those children in non-advanced education and training must not be discriminated against.

Will the Government tackle some of the lacunae and anomalies associated with the housing benefits system, the position of children in care, disabled children and those families who currently fall outside the benefits system? These measures, alongside the outstanding achievements of the 1997–2001 Parliament, will put us on the path of eliminating child poverty—poverty which my own children have seen even in the schools of leafy Cheshire. My son tells me of a school lad whose family were too poor to buy him sports kit, so he turned up in pyjama bottoms instead, to the ridicule of his peers. My daughter notes how, on non-uniform Fridays, some poorer children used to stay away, loath to pay the 50p privilege penalty. Others turned up in school uniform, reluctant to show off their sad rags against others' glad rags. Too often, such outward signs of poverty went hand in hand with academic weakness.

To the ranks of those who are concerned with children's issues, I take this opportunity to welcome the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth, and the noble Lord, Lord Adebowale, whose maiden speeches we await with great interest.

Will the Government ensure that the development of the single European market, of which I am a passionate advocate, is fashioned in a way to benefit all the citizens of the European Union in the distribution of the wealth that it creates? The pitfalls of the free movement of goods, services and people—which means workers, their families and their children—should be anticipated. As Commissioner Mario Monti once reminded me, tomorrow's single market is being created for today's children, but only if we create it with children in mind.

Will the Government continue to support Clare Short in her drive to ensure that the overseas aid spent through the EU by the 15 member states is spent wisely and rationally? I hope that the Government can be represented at January's Brussels conference mounted by the splendid EURONET group, entitled "Developing a Coherent Approach to Child Poverty and Social Exclusion in Europe". Will the Government also remind the Commission to be careful of its language? When the Commission talks of "forgiving" debts in the developing world, it should be reminded that the poor have no reason to ask for forgiveness.

World-wide, one child in four is brought up in absolute poverty, with all the ills that attend such a poor start in life. As War on Want points out in its whole picture campaign, an evil such as child labour is a symptom, not a cause, of child poverty. That poverty must be addressed to eliminate the attendant ills. I am therefore exhilarated that in February this year, Ministers Brown and Short launched an international child poverty initiative, with the triple goals of halving absolute poverty, achieving universal primary education and reducing infant deaths by two-thirds by 2015.

Chancellor Brown's November speech to the Federal Reserve in New York took up the impetus of September 11th. He demanded that rich countries increase their development assistance budget by 50 billion dollars each year. That is achievable, but it needs real political will. We can match the will-o'-the-wisp aspiration, which seems to have been around all my lifetime, that the developed nations should set aside 0.7 per cent of their GDP for overseas development assistance. Come that clay, we will have provided the world with a cutting edge to defeat poverty and help poverty's deepest victims—children—to welcome a brave new world and a brand new day of hope. I beg to move for Papers.

3.34 p.m.

The Earl of Listowel

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, for giving us an opportunity this afternoon to debate this important arid timely subject. As your Lordships are aware, the Chancellor's efforts to make further inroads into world poverty and to gather £50 billion internationally to at tack it have been in the news this week. I look forward very much to the maiden speech of my noble friend Lord Adebowale, who has been good enough to open the doors of Centrepoint for me over the past three years. I am grateful to him for that.

I shall concentrate on poverty—not especially income poverty, but poverty as it applies to those people who do not have the means to procure the necessaries of life. I shall consider the stress that poverty puts on families and its consequential impact on children and their development. I emphasise that many poor families do an excellent job of rearing their children and many well balanced people come out of poverty.

Among the young people whom I meet at Centrepoint, I often notice a clear distinction between the asylum seekers and the other young people. One asylum seeker with whom I have played chess for several months was always impeccably turned out and took great care about his personal appearance. He was always courteous and thoughtful. When I occasionally beat him at chess, he would say how much he enjoyed playing with me and what a pleasure it was. He had clear ambitions for the future. He wished to have a family and to establish himself as a computer programmer—and all that despite living in an emergency hostel in difficult circumstances and not being able to sleep well at night.

I contrast him with another young man whom I met, who had grime beneath his fingernails every time I saw him. He had been taken into care at the age of eight and subsequently been involved in the criminal justice system before becoming homeless. He had difficulty forming relationships of any depth with others, although he could easily converse about subjects such as films. His ambition was to visit Thailand and to experiment with drugs.

Another young woman whom I knew would attack her wrists with a razor blade from time to time. She was successful in art and had a commission to produce artwork for a City company, but even so I would see her after an exhibition and find that she had recently cut her wrists again.

I remember another woman who was talking to a hostel worker about her trip to Ibiza and the delights of the drugs there and the opportunities to make love with people. At the same time, she would be touching the leg of this man whom she had not met before.

I stress that those people represent only part of the group that I come across. Another young man was at a hostel for the long-term homeless during the winter time and was expelled for breaking the rules. When I knew him he was taciturn and clearly had great difficulty relating to people. When he was expelled—for quite reasonable causes, as far as I can understand—he held a deep grievance against those who had expelled him. That grievance against authority, adults and institutions is quite common among young people who have not had an adequate start in life.

Those experiences make me wonder what is at the roots of such behaviour. I remind your Lordships about the Calecott family who, when I visited them, had been living in bed-and-breakfast accommodation for 12 months. The mother was on sticks and had an infection to her pelvis. The father spoke no English. They had three children, aged 11, five and one. There were no cooking facilities, so they had to live on a take-away meal each day and snacks in between. The mother was unable to provide formula milk for her child because there were no cooking facilities. She was therefore unable to take medication for her ailment, because she did not want to pass on the drug to her child by breast feeding. There was nowhere for the children to play as the bed and breakfast was on a busy main road, and the courtyard at the back was open to the children for three or so hours only on Sundays.

The conditions had immediate impacts on the children. The five-year-old was having nightmares, waking in the night and showing other symptoms of anxiety. The mother, clearly an anxious person, had bitten her fingernails to the quick. Many factors were interfering with the mother's ability to nurture her children. Those factors were caused by poverty; they were not of the mother's own making.

All the child psychotherapists and experts to whom I have spoken about child development emphasise the importance of a child's early attachment to its primary carer. The first two years of a child's life are absolutely critical in that process. Many of your Lordships will be aware of the work of Bowlby, in the 1960s, the more recent work of Rutter, and the continuing research into attachment. That work shows that some infants and young children are simply constitutionally stronger than others and can adjust to quite bad neglect and attachment difficulties. Although it is possible to form attachments in later life, which can do much to mitigate earlier deprivation, serious problems may remain.

Young people who have grown up in such conditions are often very impulsive, self-destructive and hostile to others. They may also foster a grievance because they never received the care that they so desperately needed. They may also show a lack of resilience so that the usual hurdles facing all adolescents—exams and problems with parents or in obtaining a job—are higher for them. They are also more likely to fall at those hurdles.

In the 1998 Office for National Statistics report entitled Psychiatric Morbidity Among Prisoners, the researcher found that 64 per cent of the 505 male prisoners chosen at random and clinically interviewed had personality disorders. That research demonstrates the very strong association between poor early parenting and personality disorders. I have tried to paint a picture illustrating the fact that children are put at greater risk for the rest of their lives if parents and families are kept in poverty and forced to face the consequent pressures.

I praise the Government for their prudence and consideration. They have maintained the public's confidence and are now beginning to invest in public services, including the National Health Service and education. They are also legislating for those in need, as demonstrated by their Homelessness Bill. They are attempting to tackle income poverty with tax credits, and to introduce earlier interventions such as Sure Start for children up to four.

I warmly welcome the Government's achievements on those issues. It is essential to provide structures that enable all families to thrive. In its recent report, Monitoring poverty and social exclusion 2001, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation reports: For the first time"— in the four years in which the report has been published— the number of indicators which improved over the latest year clearly exceeds the number which got worse. That is very good news.

One of my concerns about tax credits is that, although I recognise the value of work for families in poverty, many families are not in work and the children in those families are at greater risk. A child's early years are crucial. In those years, children need a parent nearby to make them the centre of attention. Do the Government recognise that need, and what are they doing to free parents as far as possible to provide that attention? I should be grateful if the Minister would answer those questions either in her reply or in writing.

3.45 p.m.

Lord Desai

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Harrison for initiating this debate on child poverty. As he pointed out in his powerful survey, the problem is both great and urgent in countries all around the world. He also made it clear that we shall only be storing problems for ourselves if we do not tackle the issue now.

I shall, in a fairly brief speech, concentrate on child poverty in the United Kingdom. At the conclusion of his speech, the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, asked how we can best tackle child poverty given our urgent desire and commitment to do so. In his Budgets since 1997, my right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer has introduced innovative policies to reshape the notion of redistribution. While we usually think of redistribution as a transfer from those in high-income deciles to those in lower ones, the Chancellor has specifically distinguished those with children from those without children. He has therefore indirectly made the Government's redistribution policy more needs-based.

Such redistribution has occurred in measures such as the working families' tax credit and the new child benefit, which have made considerable improvements in child poverty levels. Nevertheless, problems remain—despite the fact that we are the ninth richest country in the world and that, in the past five or six years, we have had very high employment levels. We therefore have to ask ourselves why, despite relatively good economic growth and the Government's commitment to tackle child poverty, the problem has proved so persistent.

There are two aspects to the problem. First, child poverty is essentially a by-product or adjunct to parental poverty, especially in lone-parent families which are usually headed by women. Moreover, women's ability to work depends very much on the age and number of their children. Although we have tried to encourage single mothers to go to work, there is a clear conflict between that objective and the need to care for small children. We therefore have to address the issue of women's poverty, especially in the case of single women, and its consequences for children. We tend to think of dealing with child poverty in terms of provision for children, but perhaps we should think of it more in terms of provision for parents while their children are young.

Secondly, many of those who have poor children are out of the "economically active" category. Consequently, those parents are not helped by provision made in the tax system. Regardless of how cleverly we devise tax incentives in measures such as the working families' tax credit, the core poverty of economically inactive families and their children will not be tackled. That in a sense again throws us back to thinking of other kinds of issues, especially how to introduce income entitlements for people who are not in the economically active category.

On previous occasions I have spoken about citizens' income or basic income. That is a distant ideal but when we think of income support or any other income entitlement, we ought to think creatively about allowing the payment of an extra dollar, as it were, for smaller children. I know that much is being done. I do not deny that we have in place a child benefit system, an income support system and various other measures. But somehow they are not working at the lowest end. The question I have, not for the Minister as such but for all of us, is the following. How do we in this day and age make it possible for people who cannot work for one reason or another—there are many reasons why they cannot work—to receive a temporary increase in income support or some entitlement which will at least protect children from suffering the long-term problems of growing up in poverty? We are talking about the education, health and housing of small children. The way we tackle that matter is a problem which still troubles us all.

In other contexts, for the elderly, for example, there is the minimum income guarantee and other such measures. For people in work there is income supplement through the tax system. If we could, for specific time periods for families with children, think of an extra temporary increase in income and devise a shadow basic income scheme for such families, that may be the way to tackle child poverty. I am sure that there is commitment on this question; what we lack are instruments. I hope that debates such as this will make us think about those instruments.

3.52 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of Guildford

My Lords, I share, I am sure, the gratitude of the whole House to the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, for giving us the opportunity to debate this matter.

For a number of years I served on the team of a parish in Nottingham where Coates and Silburn did some important research which led to the publication of an epoch making book, Poverty: the Forgotten Englishmen. That book blew a hole in the "You have never had it so good" generation's understanding of our country's life. The face of poverty in our children is especially offensive. However, as the debate bears witness, child poverty is alive and well in Britain, as well as in the wider world, as we get into the 21st century. The fact that Her Majesty's Government have made this a target of their policy both here and overseas is evidence that in the highest places of politics that fact is accepted.

This country has one of the highest rates of child poverty in Europe. That must prompt a sense of shame about our performance given that we reckon ourselves to be on the leading edge of economic development in our time. The Chancellor of the Exchequer's invitation last week to a number of people to attend a conference to examine some of those issues is evidence of their importance. It was timely and welcome. The fact that the invitation was extended to the Archbishop and to leaders of the other faith communities is recognition of the important role that the Churches and faith communities play in our communities in tackling some of those questions.

Clergy and leaders of faith communities do not move into some of the stressed communities in our country; they live there. In living there, they seek to bring ministry to bear to families and to children through the schools and through the networks of the community. They seek to see and then to tackle some of the extraordinary experience of poverty about which we have heard in today's debate.

Government cannot achieve their aims, either internationally or in this country, on their own. They will need to harness the deepest and finest resources on the ground in our communities, rooted in the most profound of moral values and, if I dare say so, even of spiritual life if we are to succeed in this task. If I am right, the gurdwaras, the mosques, the pentecostal churches and the parish churches of our stressed communities will be key elements of the partnership. Together with government, we shall have to challenge the corporate sector to provide some resources for tackling the task.

What do children need? Clearly, they need secure, loving homes where they are safe and can grow up into adult life in a context of consistent loving relationships and values. If we are to say to parents, "Children are a trust who give you inescapable responsibilities", then we, as a caring community, must ensure that parents have the skills, the material resources and their place in society to enable them to meet that trust.

Family breakdown is a cause of emotional and material poverty among children. Unemployment is a cause of stress and material poverty among children. Some 80 per cent of child poverty has an association with unemployment. Bad and inadequate housing is a cause of stigma, embarrassment, ill health and deprivation to children. But how are we to see our children? Not, I suggest, in this season of the year with a kind of romantic slush that overwhelms them with kindness for a brief period of the year and then effectively abandons them for the rest—seen at Christmas, not heard for the rest of the year.

Children carry the full dignity and sacred worth of every single human being. They have a right to be treated as such by us all. Indeed, listening to the Starred Question on children today, a strong moral case can be made that we should treat children with the same respect and value with which we expect to treat one another as adults. This full humanity, bodily, social, material, emotional and spiritual, is to be provided for in meeting the needs of children today.

As many noble Lords will know, I chair the board of Christian Aid. We know of the tens of thousands of children in our world who are effectively slaves at work and of the millions—dare I say it?—who are threatened with growing up as orphans because of AIDS. I should be interested to hear from the Government something of the work they are doing to support communities deeply affected by AIDS. I refer to the multitudes of children who live in places—I have seen some of these places on visits to Africa in particular—where there is no schooling, or what schooling there is has no resources because the country concerned is in economic chaos or weighed down with unacceptable levels of debt.

But I also know that at this time of the year on the streets of our own cities children are being driven to prostitution. Larger numbers than we care to think live with physical and emotional abuse in their own homes, or, especially at the season of Christmas, will be in terror as they watch their own parents fight it out in domestic violence.

It is especially good to be present to hear the maiden speeches of the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth, and the noble Lord, Lord Adebowale. They will have huge contributions to make on these matters.

We lock up children in secure units because we do not know what to do with them in terms of their violent behaviour. And we take children away from their homes because their parents are either violent to them or do not have the emotional resources to cope with parenting. In Britain at the end of 2001, at Christmas, these things will be happening in our own country.

In his Dimbleby lecture, Bill Clinton spoke of the war in Afghanistan costing over 1 billion dollars per month. He went on to make the telling point that the war against poverty costs much less and achieves much more. We are well served by the policies the Government are pursuing; and now we are at a moment of great opportunity with the leadership shown in these matters by the Chancellor and the Secretary of State for International Development. We must support and press our Government to achieve these aims so that our own house is put in order.

That is what we are meant to be doing in this season of Advent, if noble Lords will forgive a Christian theme. As we approach the season of Christmas, when we believe that the face of God meets us in the face of a vulnerable child, for God's sake, and for the sake of our children in and out of season, let us rid our nation and our world of poverty in our lifetime.

4.1 p.m.

Baroness Howarth of Breckland

My Lords, I have three good reasons for thanking the noble Lord, Lord Harrison. The first is for the opportunity to make this speech. I thought that I should end this term having listened to much about terrorism—necessary but interminable—but never having had the opportunity to talk on the subject about which I care most: that is, children. Secondly, I thank the noble Lord for reminding us about children across the world. I shall talk mainly about children in this country. However, earlier this year I visited India and saw street children. I hope that in this country we never see a child in the state in which I saw some children there. Having said that, I have seen children in doorways; I have seen them carried on the shoulders of their mothers, begging in trains. When we look abroad, we should remind ourselves that much of that happens on our own doorsteps, shocking as that may be.

I think that a maiden speech is a time for noble Lords to learn something about the person speaking as well as the issue. I have a vivid memory of being a small girl in Sheffield, in my primary school, and of a classmate prodding me in the back, saying, "Valerie Howarth, your socks are all darned". We were not poor in comparison with the other people on the large Parson Cross housing estate where I was raised, but I have spent most of my life close to those who have experienced poverty at a significant level. Being poor does not predestine people to failure or make them violent, abusive, drug addicts or criminals. But grinding hardship, the struggle to keep out of debt, homelessness, inadequate housing and the constant fight against ever-increasing odds leading to mental illness and low physical care are the breeding ground for social ills.

I begin this way because many will say that social exclusion—the hygienic word for poverty—is no excuse for anti-social behaviour; and, indeed, it is not. But we know that there is a correlation between these issues and if by well thought out policies such as those on which the Government are at present engaged we could reduce violence, abuse and illness in our society, we should surely make every effort to do so.

The Government have many innovative programmes to tackle poverty. Increases in universal child benefit, the working families' tax credit and income support were outlined by the noble Lord, Lord Desai. They are complemented by new projects such as Sure Start which makes a real difference for young children, as I have seen in local communities, and Connexions which links personal advisers to young people to keep them in education. Both are essential—the latter in particular because education is the one sure way of getting out of the poverty trap.

Not all families manage their way around these benefit schemes. I have a friend—her mother was a client of mine in the past so social work is sometimes pretty consistent—a single mother who is attempting to take herself off benefit and into work and training. She has ended up in such a muddle that she now has huge rent arrears. Some families find it very difficult to sort their way through the maze of benefits. But she is a good mother and I shall do all in my power to help her.

As a social worker, a previous director of social services and Chief Executive of ChildLine, I have worked with dozens of families in difficulties and listened to hundreds of children. I have talked with men and women in prison and mental hospitals. Poverty was part of many of their stories. Poverty breeds violence. Through stress it brings depression, resentment and the attendant anti-social behaviour which we all abhor. Family breakdown, including serious violent outbursts, can often be the outcome of financial strain with disastrous consequences for children. Of course, poverty is not the only reason for violence and violence is far from being a feature in every low income family. But children talking to ChildLine about their experience of family conflict often link rows to lack of money. When I talk of rows, I am not talking about the polite argument that some may have over the dinner table. One child called and talked to me, having prised the hands of her father from the throat of her mother.

Violence is a factor in total family breakdown adding to deprivation in a child's life. Seventeen thousand children a year pass through the hectic and often emotionally fraught environment of women's refuges. Those refuges will provide a safe haven from violence but, at a stroke, a child will have education, friendships and extended kinships disrupted and sometimes lost forever.

Violence is also a key feature in the development of sex offenders, as I know as the Vice Chair of the Lucy Faithfull Foundation. Recent studies have confirmed this connection; and while not all violent men are abusers nor from poor homes, many sex offenders have both those features in their history.

A poor income usually also means a poor diet; and here I declare an interest as a board member of the Food Standards Agency. The FSA is shortly to launch a major new low income diet and nutrition survey which will make a contribution to the Government's wider strategy on health issues. There is a particular concern for young people with evidence that eating patterns established in adolescence are likely to remain through adult life. Low income is a crucial factor in poor diet and a barrier to dietary change. A child's eating habits will play a major part in their physical development, general health, capacity to concentrate, and thus their successful passage through education. It is also vital for their emotional health that they do not experience their mother's failure to eat properly in order to ensure that they do; nor that she finds herself in prostitution in order to provide for them.

For many children coming from poor backgrounds, the breakdown of their family will result in them becoming looked-after children—children in care. Over 58,000 children are currently in local authority care. The Quality Protects programme has many measures intended to give this most vulnerable group of children and young people a decent start in life. However, they are not targeted specifically in the present nutritional policy and it would be good to hear from the Minister how that will be taken forward in future plans.

As noble Lords will know, in most circumstances it would be best for the child to stay with his or her family. Many new programmes have been mentioned earlier but not all families are able to use them. Voluntary organisations like NCH are doing much to help by providing family centres and community support groups. These can give a new sense of hope, self-worth and dignity to mothers who had almost given up, and consequently a lift to their children. But for some families the steady support of a local authority social worker will make all the difference. Whatever the public perception of social workers, day after day in communities throughout the country they are helping families with the most complex personal and social difficulties, while at the same time watching over the care, development and protection of their children. Sometimes they will make mistakes and occasionally, as in all professions, they will not be of the calibre that we would hope to see. At the moment there is a serious shortage of social workers in many local authorities. They undertake the work that many would rather not see. If poverty was a real issue, would our Benches here not be fuller this afternoon? It would be helpful to know about plans to attract more people into social work and to know how they can be better sustained and developed.

I began with the story of my darned socks. Why do I remember it so long after? Is it the slight, the shame? Not at all. When I reached home, indignant at the insult, I recounted the story to my mother. "Never mind, love", she said, "your classmate probably has holes in her socks. She might not have anyone who loves her enough to do all that darning".

The problems of poverty are complex. The solutions are difficult and need to be sustained over a long period of time to gain results, but the end aim is simple. These programmes need to be long-term sustained in order that every child has someone who loves her enough to ensure a successful move to the adult world; and, who knows, they might just end up in your Lordships' House.

Noble Lords

Hear, hear!

4.12 p.m.

Baroness Massey of Darwen

My Lords, I am delighted to follow the truly excellent and moving speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth, to congratulate her, and to welcome her to your Lordships' House. Her speech is enlightened by her own vast experience of working with children and families. She is best known, of course, for building up Childline, of which she was the chief executive. She has also been a director of social services and involved with child care, women's refuges and charities for the homeless and the disabled. She is currently a member of the new National Care Standards Commission. Since her arrival in your Lordships' House, I have come to know her as a sincere, enlightened and hard-working professional. She is a welcome addition to that seat of all truth and wisdom, the Women Peers' Room.

I should also like to thank my noble friend Lord Harrison for initiating this debate and introducing it with such knowledge and conviction. I enjoyed the speech preceding mine and I look forward to that which is to follow.

One of my interests is as co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Children. Several noble Lords here today are also connected in significant ways with that group. We shall take note of the issues raised in this debate and continue to press for positive action on the rights of children.

Today I shall focus on child poverty in the UK and ask the Minister how the many initiatives for alleviating child poverty are linked, how they support each other and how initiatives developed across government will be monitored and evaluated. I shall make reference, if necessarily briefly, to the need to improve education and health for children and young people, which is crucial in tackling poverty. I shall also refer to the need to consult with children and their communities to solve problems.

In this country we have clearly come a long way in eliminating some of the more extreme horrors of deprivation during the last century and before. Improvements in public health and education are well known. Children are now usually educated beyond the age of nine and by teachers who are literate, which sometimes was not the case in the 1840s. Improvements in living conditions, healthcare and nutrition have been spectacular for many, but not all. However, the negative physical, cognitive, emotional and behavioural outcomes of poverty are still with us.

The Family Policy Studies Centre's report on children and poverty, published recently, shows how child morbidity and mortality, childhood accidents, child abuse, teenage pregnancy, homelessness, alcohol and drug use, crime, suicide, child labour and mental health can all be related, though not exclusively, to childhood poverty. If we, as a society, want to address those topics, we must primarily address the overarching issue of poverty as well as focusing on the topics themselves.

In this country we are fortunate to have a number of large and small dynamic voluntary organisations which focus on child welfare. As was mentioned earlier, we also have government strategies and structures, which seek to both initiate and co-ordinate efforts to improve the lot of children. Many Bills before Parliament in this Session will impinge on child poverty. We must take care to relate them to each other, for example, in education, social and health matters. They cannot stand apart.

A report from Barnardo's asks three questions. What are the human costs in the lives of children and young people growing up in poverty? What are the material costs? What investments might have led to a more positive and hopeful present and future? Examples and projections are given. For example, it is calculated that early investment in the case of one child would have cost £12,782 and that failure to invest has cost £33,266. We cannot, for economic reasons, afford not to take child poverty seriously. Equally, and perhaps more importantly, children now and in the future depend on us to take it seriously.

I was particularly encouraged by the setting up last year of the Children and Young People's Unit, which will look at how best to improve service provision and work closely with the voluntary, community, faith and statutory sectors to develop effective systems and structures for children. Its strategy document, now out for consultation, contains the following key statement: A substantial body of evidence shows that children and young people who grow up in poverty experience disadvantage and lack of opportunity that affects not only their own current and future experience as adults, but their life chances as children". We must seek to improve those life chances. To succeed in doing so, we cannot address problems in isolation. Individuals usually belong to families and communities, which need support. That support must start early—a point raised by my noble friend Lord Desai and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Guildford.

The Sure Start programme enables disadvantaged families to use family support, health services and education to try to break the cycle of poverty and deprivation. That programme includes antenatal support, which will address poor nutrition, low birth weight and smoking.

As the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth, said, education can provide a way out of poverty. However, it has to start early, working with families to ensure that children are taught literacy, numeracy and social skills from an early age. We still have problems with truancy and exclusion, though the situation has improved. A good example of how schools can support children and their families can be seen in the primary school of which I am a governor. That school is in an inner city deprived area of London. It has worked wonders in developing and maintaining high literacy and numeracy standards, good behaviour and self-esteem among the children—all through a commitment from the headteacher and staff to respect children and their backgrounds and to hold high expectations that children, from whatever background, can improve their life chances. The school is also a recipient of the National Healthy Schools Standard award, which encourages education and health partnerships and links with personal, social and health education and citizenship education.

As I said, good health in families and children is an essential component to lifting people out of poverty. Strides have been made in that direction through new ways of working for school nurses and health visitors, and through the welfare food scheme and the new national fruit scheme, which will provide every four to six year-old with free fruit every day. The Children's Taskforce seeks to ensure that children's requirements are part of all aspects of the NHS Plan.

I emphasise the need to involve communities in solving their own problems. That includes consultation with young people. Recent initiatives have highlighted the importance of such consultation. One report, from the National Youth Agency, emphasised the benefit to those concerned. Local authorities can acquire better and more accurate information about needs, barriers and opportunities to access, thereby making them better able to improve services and gain credibility with young people and their communities. Young people have the chance to learn about themselves and their communities; their self-esteem is increased because they are taken seriously; and their ability to influence policy and practice and their capacity in the community are enhanced.

There is no reason why, with determination and imagination, young people who have suffered—or are suffering—deprivation should not be involved in such consultations. I suggest that if they were, realistic and dynamic interventions would be more likely.

Involving people in services that affect them is one way of monitoring what works and adapting where necessary. We need to know what works at the individual and community levels. I repeat my question to the Minister: how will services link successfully in order to deliver what families and communities need, and how will we know what works in eliminating poverty?

4.22 p.m.

Lord Adebowale

My Lords, I rise to make my maiden speech on an issue to which I and many other noble Lords attach great importance—child poverty.

Before continuing, I pause to thank noble Lords for the kindness that they have shown to me in my very short time in the House. I thank my noble friend Lord Listowel in particular, who has helped me through the many strange and interesting facilities of parliamentary language. I also thank the Doorkeepers and staff of the House, who will be glad to know that I have memorised quite well their instructions about finding my way around. "Continue to turn tight, then left at the stairs, past Black Rod's office and then straight on till morning". I also take this opportunity to thank my family, friends and colleagues for their patience while I readjust priorities in order to cope with the new responsibilities that being a Peer brings.

The matter of child poverty is at the heart of the judgment about whether we live in a civilised society. It is only by measuring our success in extending the opportunities that are afforded to many in this House to the poorest in society that we can judge the impact of our endeavours as policy makers and policy scrutinisers.

I shall restrict my comments to what is happening in this country. The noble Lord, Lord Desai, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Guildford covered the international aspects of child poverty. I believe the Government are right to focus on child poverty, to set clear targets and to show leadership in that area. To do so makes sense in every respect because those who grow up in childhood surrounded by poverty are likely to remain so. The examples and personal observations of my noble friend Lord Listowel and the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth of Breckland, contained much evidence of that. It is clear that much has been done by the Government but it is important that we understand that child poverty is not just a moral issue but a matter of sound economic sense and self-interest. We need to tackle child poverty. Failure to resolve the issues surrounding child poverty will be a failure to provide the necessary skills for this country's economic growth; it will also do irreparable damage to our moral health.

Child poverty in a broad sense is not just about money; it is also about the provision of decent services and ensuring that there is access to them by those who need them most. It is of great concern to me that for too long we appear to have been suffering from the inverse care law—the more you need, the less you are likely to get.

Despite the many Herculean efforts of this Government, the vast majority of schools with the poorest performance educationally are in areas where child poverty is greatest. Access to healthcare is poorest where child poverty is most prevalent. Our poorest children are growing up in neighbourhoods with the highest crime.

It is critical to recognise the scale of the challenge facing us. When I was a teenager, which is not that long ago, one in 10 children grew up in poverty. By the end of the 1990s, the figure was one in three. That has huge implications for the future of society, in that poverty is no longer an isolated experience. It is now increasingly the norm in many parts of the country. For too many members of minority ethnic communities, that is disproportionately the case.

Those facts present us with a massive challenge for social cohesion and economic prosperity. It is critical that our responses are at the right scale. It is not simply the case that the poor need more resources; adequate scrutiny needs to be given to policies that will affect the poor. The devil is often in the detail. Public services are the route to giving people access to opportunities and skills that are essential to pull themselves out of poverty, not just for a single generation but for many generations.

My own background has given me many opportunities, both professionally and personally, to witness the way in which public policy has impacted upon the poorest children. That is often unintentional but it happens as a result of a lack of scrutiny, which is focused on the effects of such policies on our poorest citizens and the children of our poorest citizens. It is with that in mind that I draw the attention of noble Lords to an article by Ben Summerskill in last Sunday's Observer, in which he recounted the plight of Mary Smith. She was evicted from her council accommodation as a result of failure to pay rent. That was mainly due to poor housing benefit administration and over-payments. That led Mrs Smith into a situation in which her family was evicted and social services, in doing their duty, placed the children at risk and put them in care. That situation, in the 21st century, was not uncommon in 1966 in "Cathy Come Home".

This House has a track record of ensuring through its scrutiny of policy that the effects on the poor are taken into account. Mrs Smith and her family tell a tale that can be told by up to 400,000 families in bed and breakfast accommodation. It can be told by thousands of children who will be brought up in neighbourhoods that are bereft of opportunities—and access to opportunities—that are necessary for children not just to survive but to thrive and become economically active and socially independent.

It is correct that we focus on child poverty with some urgency. We need to focus on the need to ensure that child poverty is not only reduced but eradicated. In so doing, we should improve the public services on which we all rely.

4.30 p.m.

Baroness Thornton

My Lords, it is with huge pleasure that I rise on behalf of the whole House to thank and congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Adebowale, on a speech which was characteristically excellent and challenging. Perhaps I may say to the noble Lord: well done and welcome.

The noble Lord should know that his formidable reputation goes before him. He has long been an effective campaigner for the homeless, and Centrepoint—one of the country's leading youth homelessness charities, of which he was chief executive—put the issues of the most disadvantaged young people firmly on the public's and the Government's agenda. His outspoken and passionate campaigning work has probably not always been a comfortable experience for government.

The noble Lord has also played a leading role in many public initiatives concerning the training and employment of young people; for example, as a member of the Government's New Deal task force. On behalf of your Lordships' House perhaps I may welcome the noble Lord and say how much I look forward to working with him in the years to come.

I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Harrison for initiating this debate, enhanced, indeed, by the two contributions that we have heard in maiden speeches. Poverty and social exclusion work in combination to damage children's lives. Poverty refers to a lack of material resources, in particular money, while social exclusion means an inability to take part in activities that others take for granted.

The two work together to damage children. For example, many poor children in the UK live in disadvantaged city neighbourhoods. Minority ethnic communities, lone-parent households and pensioners are often over-represented there. Each area has a different set of problems, but there is often high unemployment, poor health, high crime, run-down housing and inadequate public services. As a result, the people in our society with the fewest resources face some of the most severe problems. That is where many projects, such as those of NCH—the charity with which I am closely associated—work. Like many voluntary and community organisations, they work at the sharp end, fighting the effects of poverty and the effects of poverty on children and their families.

The fact that the Government have committed themselves to ending child poverty within a generation—by the year 2019—is fantastic. No other policy aim has such capacity to transform children's lives. The Government deserve huge credit for the boldness of their ambition and deserve much support from all sectors of society in pursuing it. They acknowledge, as I believe we must, that this is not something that government alone can achieve.

Last week the Chancellor published a position statement on ending child poverty. He made the statement at a meeting attended by the leaders of all the faith communities in the UK—unusual and significant in itself—and the charities that have banded together to create the End Child Poverty Coalition. That degree of solidarity is promising. Over the next few years it must be consolidated and extended to other sectors, including business and the public as a whole and, it is hoped, across politics. Certainly, believe that the goal of ending child poverty should transcend ideology.

In the meantime, there is much that the Government can do to progress the goal of ending child poverty, and I want to raise several issues. I believe that in the spring Budget the Chancellor should set the rate of the child tax credit sufficiently high—at least as generous as that of the working families' tax credit—so that the worst-off families see a real rise in their living standards. In many ways, this will probably be the single most important financial decision that the Government make in 2002 in that it will have the greatest effect on child poverty.

I also want to ask the Minister about the minimum wage and the working families' tax credit. Those are complex issues but I want to ask a simple question. What is the current implication for a lone parent of two young children who goes to work? How do the two measures combine to affect that single parent with two young children?

In recognition of the fact that child poverty is about more than simply money, the Government must also continue their drive to improve public services, in particular those that benefit poor and excluded children. The spending review that reports in summer 2002 offers a further opportunity to do so. Priorities should include the needs of families who require support. For example, perhaps there should be a family support service in every neighbourhood, more resources—staff and services—for children with mental health problems, and more provision to help children in the countryside as well as those in urban areas.

The isolation of children and families in rural communities presents particular challenges. Last year the Countryside Agency and NCH published a report, Challenging the Rural Idyll. It described graphically the problems of poverty for children in some of the most beautiful parts of our country. I want to refer to one story in that report, which I commend to your Lordships. It concerns a single parent called Eva, who lives in a small market town in Cornwall. She has two children, Julia and James. She is divorced and her family does not live nearby. Julia has epilepsy and is often off school because of her illness. Although Eva wants to work, she cannot find a job in the town in which she lives which will fit around the children's school hours and around her need to look after Julia.

Eva's home has stunning views over the nearby moors, but that also means that the prevailing wind and rain blow directly into her house. It was her story about holidays that struck me. Of course, we are now approaching Christmas. Those of us who are parents will by buying presents for our children and making plans for our holidays, just as I have done. Eva said: Summer holidays are just an utter and complete nightmare. I feel I'm mean [to my children], I feel terrible. Julia's not too bad, but James has started to notice that he goes without. It's really heartbreaking. They miss out on a lot, just things that other [children] take for granted … They get to the point that they don't ask anymore. For instance, James never asks for anything for Christmas. I mean most children his age would have a list, they learn quick. James never asks for anything. He just says, 'Get what you can, Mum'. It's things like that make me sad". She is right.

I also ask the Minister to give some thought to the abolition of the severe hardship system for 16 and 17 year-olds who cannot live with their families. I ask them to consider replacing it with a fairer and more adequate safety net, following the example of other countries. Evidence exists to show that the current system leaves some young people at risk of exploitation. That is clearly not acceptable. Sixteen and 17 year-olds are still children in legal and moral terms, and such a step would make a real difference in alleviating their poverty.

In conclusion, I feel optimistic about the fight to end child poverty. The reason that we must win this battle is not because it is the right thing to do, which clearly it is. Our society needs to be ambitious for all its children. We need all our children to take the opportunities before them and to reach their full potential.

4.38 p.m.

Lord Northbourne

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, for introducing this debate. We have heard some deeply impressive speeches from people who know a great deal about the subject, not least our two maiden speakers. I believe that they represent a marvellous resource of knowledge and experience which should be powerfully useful in helping to solve the problem of poverty.

I am a little uncomfortable about the total focus on child poverty. It tends to imply that the issue is simply one of money. Child poverty is a symptom of family poverty. Child poverty which damages the child is a symptom of the disease which is child poverty. Nearly all parents want, if they can, to do their best for their child.

In a moment, I shall look at some of the aspects of child poverty which have not been discussed today. In doing so, I refer to the excellent brief which many noble Lords will have received from Barnardo's—a powerful and well documented statement about the problem. I thought that its suggested solutions were singularly depressing. All it seemed to be able to suggest was that the Government should dosh out more money. I believe that that solution has been tried before and has not worked. Of course, more money will be needed, but we must ask ourselves what should go with that money.

In my view a partnership between parents, communities and the Government is required. Although I have great pleasure in seeing the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, at the Dispatch Box, it is an enormous pity that we do not have a Minister for families replying to the debate rather than a Minister who is primarily concerned with doshing out money.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Work and Pensions (Baroness Hollis of Heigham)

My Lords, I do not believe that is the verb that I would use when talking about money.

Lord Northbourne

My Lords, my knowledge of the enormous ability of the noble Baroness gives me confidence that she will be able to deal skilfully with all the issues raised in the debate.

Poverty creates a cycle in that it leads to certain outcomes; those outcomes lead to more poverty; and more poverty leads to the same outcomes in the next generation. We have to address not merely the issue of inadequate funding, but also some of the underlying causes of poverty.

The Barnardo's study that I mentioned identifies some of the causes and identifies certain categories of the population that are more likely to live in poverty compared with others. One or two of the categories are obvious; for example, families with chronic illness and families with one or more members who are disabled. Perhaps other categories need to be reconsidered: lone parents, families with many siblings, non-white households, care leavers and families without work. I shall consider each of those in turn.

The reasons why lone parents are poorer are so obvious that I do not believe that it would be sensible to waste time talking about them. The Government want to get lone parents into work. Subject to that applying only to lone parents of children over three or four years of age, they are absolutely right. I wonder whether other matters should be considered as well. I hope I shall not be considered to be politically incorrect or unreasonable, but in this country we have by far the highest percentage of lone parents compared with the whole of Europe. Is it not worth asking ourselves whether there is anything that can be done to help to reduce that percentage and to help more people to live happily in two-parent families? I believe that many things could be done.

For families with many siblings—it is not a dissimilar problem—there must be opportunities to spend more money and effort on helping—I must be careful how I say this—to persuade parents to plan their families more effectively and rationally without in any way intruding on their right to decide how they want to live.

I turn to non-white households, which could be an even more politically sensitive issue. Unless we face these real issues honestly, we shall never solve them and if we do not solve them, we shall never achieve the equality of opportunity that we seek for all the citizens of our country. In the case of ethnic-minority employment, trainers and employers have a responsibility, but it may be worth considering and exploring the possibility that certain non-white communities themselves should join together to develop better access to work and employability for their members, with the help of government resources where necessary.

The most obvious answer in certain communities is English language classes. The inability to speak English can be a cause of unemployability. English language courses were provided and a considerable amount of money was made available in districts like Tower Hamlets, which I know well, for the teaching of English. Unfortunately, the previous government decided to withdraw that grant.

The case of care leavers is different. That care leavers should have a higher risk of living in poverty when they leave care is nothing short of a scandal. I recognise that children who are taken into care are already damaged children. But as a society, do we have the right to take children into care and not provide them with the care and the healing that they require? Do we have a right to put them into children's homes where fewer than 10 per cent of the staff have any relevant training? As a trustee of the Caldecott Community, I know what a difficult and expensive job it is to heal children who have been damaged while living with their families. If the job is done properly, as a community we would save an enormous amount of money in terms of unemployability, exclusion, juvenile crime, ill health and drug use. In the end it would pay to do the job correctly.

I shall not speak about unemployment as other noble Lords have spoken on that subject with great wisdom. It is a difficult subject and could be the subject of a debate on its own. The Barnardo's brief does not address some categories: families plagued by alcohol addiction, families with a parent with mental health problems, families in poor housing or in bed-and-breakfast accommodation, and families where parents constantly quarrel. Many noble Lords have referred to those points.

I do not have time to talk about all those points, but I want to speak about debt. Some people who work with very poor families say that debt is the worst of all the problems that they have to face. Last year more than 2 million people approached the citizens advice bureaux about problems related to debt. For families who live on benefits or on equivalent low incomes, it is just possible to manage if they are very careful until a special demand for expenditure arises. It may be a birth, a marriage, a death, a fire or the need to buy the children new clothes because they have grown. Those matters tend to lead families into debt. Catalogues also are a major source of debt for families as they offer tempting goods on credit.

I know of a mother whose son came home from school in tears every day because he did not have a Puffa jacket or the trainers that all his fellow pupils had. She was so harrowed by that that she borrowed the money and bought the items but the debt was so oppressive that she prostituted herself until she could pay it off. That story links in with what other noble Lords have said about the problems of young people coping with poverty and prostitution.

On the street the cost of borrowing is as much as 10 per cent per week—about 500 per cent APR. Again there are things that can be done. The Government are conscious of that problem. There is the problem of poor financial literacy. The Government are considering teaching financial literacy in schools. Do schools actually engage the attention of the target people who need to have better literacy skills? I wonder whether they do.

Financial services in this country are geared to the needs of the rich and not to the poor. Poor families suffer from a lack of the tools, as well as the skills, with which to manage their money. The Government have announced a bold initiative to address these problems through the Child Trust Fund and the Saving Gateway. I ask the Minister whether these services will be provided through the banks because the banks are very bad at reaching out to "hard to work with" groups.

Credit unions do a marvellous job. There are 1,000 credit unions in this country and they cater for only I per cent of the population. Could not the Government do much more to encourage mutual self help organisations of that kind? The citizens advice bureaux do a marvellous job but they cannot give long term help. At Toynbee Hall we are developing a new service which combines services to meet immediate needs with those to help people to cope better for the future, to develop workable credit strategies and to avoid financial exclusion.

Finally, at this season, and following other noble Lords, I draw attention to the fact that child poverty is not only about money and services. It is about—many of these other kinds of poverty are not by any means exclusive to poor families in the financial sense of the word—poverty of parental time and attention; poverty of parental guidance and discipline; lack of parental encouragement and example, especially in relation to education; and, simply, parental love. With that thought, I wish your Lordships a very happy Christmas.

4.52 p.m.

Baroness Walmsley

My Lords, I first thank the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, for the opportunity of this debate today. I compliment him on his very fine speech. I also compliment our two maiden speakers on their equally fine speeches.

I share with the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth, her enthusiasm and delight in the dying art of darning, a skill which I learnt at my grandmother's knee. My late husband would proudly show around the office the darned elbows of his sweaters because to him it proved that he had a loving wife.

At this time of year, when those of us who have children and grandchildren have particular opportunities to show how much we love and appreciate them, it is appropriate that we consider those who are not so fortunate. We have heard about the scale of the problem from the noble Lord, Lord Adebowale. In 1979, 14 per cent of British children lived below the poverty line. By 1997 the figure was 34 per cent. One of the most surprising and worrying statistics I have read recently is that it has only fallen to 32 per cent under the Government, despite their efforts. If that is all that the Government can achieve when the country is strong economically, what can we expect as the economy slows down?

The Chancellor claims to have taken 1 million children out of poverty since Labour came to power, but DSS figures show that only 300,000 children have been lifted out of poverty since 1997. Is the 1 million figure just the end of a graph on the Treasury wall and therefore pure speculation? The Government will know that over-claiming the number undermines their considerable credibility in their efforts to reduce child poverty.

The Government will realise that not everyone who is entitled to a benefit actually receives it. Perhaps that is the explanation for the discrepancy. Does the Minister have any figures on the take-up of benefits for families with children? If it is not 100 per cent, and it probably is not, what are the Government planning to do about that? The benefits system is enormously complicated. Are there plans to simplify it and make benefits more accessible?

The Government have admittedly reduced the poverty statistics to some extent, but they have done so by top-slicing the poor through tax credits for those who are working. But the very deep levels of poverty lie among the unemployed, those living on benefits and with children to bring up. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Desai, that children are poor because their mothers are poor. Benefits are inadequate and many families have high levels of debt. That is partly because there are not enough grants for essential equipment such as cookers and cots, as we heard from the noble Earl, Lord Listowel. There is, however, the Social Fund. That has survived five years longer than the Conservative government, much to everyone's surprise. It badly needs reviewing. It has several major flaws.

First, it has an emphasis on loans, the repayment of which can take claimant's income some 15 per cent below the already inadequate official poverty line. Many applicants are refused loans because they are too poor even to afford the repayments. Applicants refused the money to buy a cooker on that basis have been told to buy sandwiches. Is that the way to ensure that children in poor families are properly nourished? I share the concern of the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth of Breckland, about the poor levels of nutrition of children in poorer families. I was pleased to hear from her about the FSA's low income diet initiative. Diseases which were uncommon axe becoming common again and children's resistance to everyday childhood illnesses is reduced when they are not fed properly. Perhaps the Minister can tell us more about what the Government are doing about that.

Secondly, the Social Fund has the problem of annual caps on expenditure. That causes officers sometimes to juggle budgets and produce a postcode lottery unrelated to real need. One of the main principles of social security support should be equal access for those who need it. The structures in place at the moment do not always ensure that.

Finally, many of those in need are reluctant to approach the fund because they do not believe that they can afford to pay back a loan or because they have a cultural predisposition against borrowing, such as those in the Muslim community.

We have heard from the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Guildford how the faith community and the charity sector sometimes pick up the pieces, but they often want to know that an applicant has been refused by the Social Fund before considering an application for help. Alternatively, a desperate family may be pushed into the private loan sector with all the potential for exploitation from loan sharks that we heard from the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne.

Those who are employed fare a little better. But the need to give tax credits and family income supplements to the low paid shows only that wage structures in this country are profoundly dysfunctional. Large numbers of people work for long hours on wages they cannot live on; and employers get away with it. As the national wealth has risen by 30 per cent over the past 10 years, the gap between rich and poor in this country has widened and is the widest in Europe.

But I do not propose to emphasise "relative" poverty and the difference between rich and poor, even though that difference is the highest in Europe. My main concern is "absolute" poverty, leaving aside how well other people live. There are too many families in the UK in the new millennium where two or three generations have never worked. They receive inadequate benefits, have a high level of debt and are inadequately trained in how to manage money. As the Government reconsider the 14 to 19 curriculum, I ask the Minister whether there are any plans to encourage schools to spend more time teaching practical family budgeting to young people. After all, everyone needs that skill, whether they earn £5,000 or £50,000 per year.

The only way to eradicate child poverty is to guarantee a minimum income standard and to ensure security for those who cannot work as well as those who can. Tax credits should be set at a level that guarantees that all children are lifted above poverty levels. Some families need a little more than others; for example, those with disabled children and those with only one parent at home. Sadly, despite recent policy changes, many working families remain close to or below the poverty line; 44 per cent of children in working families remain below median income; and 7 per cent remain below the poverty line. Research has shown that paid work may boost income but there is no guarantee of an escape from poverty.

However, if parents are to work, there must be more focus on adequate, good quality and affordable child care. Although I welcome the national childcare strategy, there is still a long way to go. The strategy provided 140,000 new places last year, but 66,000 places were lost, so the net gain was only 74,000. That contrasts with the Government's target of 85,000 new places.

Affordability of childcare is a major issue in parents' decision to go to work, especially if the pay offered is at about the minimum wage. Currently, almost all childcare places for children under three years old are fee paying. According to the Daycare Trust, about 600,000 under-threes are living in poverty in England. Of these, only about 43,000 receive free or subsidised services. That is clearly not enough to allow parents to work and improve their family's income. The Sure Start initiative is excellent, but it still has a long way to go. It plans to reach a third of children under four in poverty by 2004, but I must ask the Minister: what about the other two-thirds?

The Government should put more resources into their child care strategy. That will empower parents, help children and add to the workforce, so improving the country's economy in the long term. We must take the long view and see good childcare as an investment in the future of both our children and our economy.

As we heard from the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth of Breckland, and the noble Baroness, Lady Massey of Darwen, poverty manifestly affects educational attainment. According to research carried out by the Liberal Democrats, most failing schools have a large number of children receiving free school meals. If we are to provide equality of access to a good education—the key to economic independence—we must address the issue of deprivation.

I encourage the Government to reconsider the recommendation of the Social Security Select Committee in another place that they should conduct research into the levels of income necessary to avoid poverty and provide ways to achieve that, for both those who can work and those who cannot. Given the political will and a thorough review of the considerable research that already exists, that could be done quickly. Without that work, British children could die in poverty this winter.

5.2 p.m.

Lord Higgins

My Lords, I join all those who have expressed appreciation to the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, for initiating this debate. His opening remarks set the tone for the debate, as they put child poverty in this country in the context of that in the rest of the world. It is important to remember that most other parts of the world are dealing with absolute poverty: in this country, on the whole, we are dealing with relative poverty.

The noble Lord referred to the United Nations target for aid of 0.7 per cent of gross national product. Alas, that has been an aspiration in politics for as long as I can remember. That must be put in the context of provision made by private assistance to the third world, and, in particular, of debt repayment. Under all parties, we have made considerable progress. However, having at one time been involved in that process, I am always worried about giving debt relief to the third world, because the original money may not have been well spent. We may be giving further relief to a country when we could devote the resources to another country in greater need. None the less, we have made important progress and debt relief is certainly of great value to many third world countries.

In that context, I shall make one purely personal point. I am worried about how the present situation in Afghanistan may distort the allocation of resources in the aid programme as a whole. Not only is there the military expenditure; there is clearly enormous poverty in Afghanistan. Once the immediate crisis is over, it will he important to ensure that the overall sense of priorities that the departments concerned must establish are not distorted.

This debate has been remarkable for two maiden speeches. The noble Baroness, Lady Howarth of Breckland, brings to the House great experience as chief executive of Childline and made many important points. She will present something of a problem for those of us on the Front Bench, because I began to make a note of each of her points and rapidly ran out of paper. Despite having covered so many points, she in no way dealt with them superficially. She made an important contribution to the debate.

Similarly, the noble Lord, Lord Adebowale, comes with great experience from Centrepoint, and so on, and made several important points, stressing that it makes economic sense and is in our self-interest to seek to solve the problem of child poverty. He made another important point by arguing that resources often go not to the areas most in need but to those that are relatively well off. Consequently, we often find that educational and sports facilities, and so on, are least good in the most deprived areas. He brings great experience of such issues and we look forward to hearing both from him and from the noble Baroness on many future occasions.

Many of the speeches that we have heard derive from front-line experience of dealing with the problem. I should like to make some specific points. Yesterday, speaking before me, the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis of Heigham, anticipated what I was going to say and produced some arguments that I had not even thought of. Perhaps I may do the same, as the Minister will no doubt refer to the Government's record on the matter.

In a speech on 25th September, the Chancellor of the Exchequer said: With already 1.2 million children lifted out of poverty, we can aim higher. We will seek a simple and fundamental mandate to eradicate child poverty in our generation and give every child the best possible start in life. We all share that aspiration, although his statement was not correct. It was not the case that the Government had already lifted 1.2 million children out of poverty; that was what they anticipated would happen because of measures announced by the Chancellor.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, I shall expand on this point when I wind up the debate, but if I may, I shall put on record that that is not a correct reading of what my right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer said. It is important to correct that misapprehension.

Lord Higgins

My Lords, I was quoting from the party press release; it may well not be accurate.

It is important to establish the facts about that claim. Strangely, the figure is derived from two entirely separate sources: first, a study by POLIMOD at the University of Cambridge; secondly, a separate government study. Both studies produced the figure of 1.2 million. That is surprising, because they deal differently with housing benefit and the first study makes an allowance for take-up, whereas the government study assumes 100 per cent take-up. Yet both produce the figure of 1.2 million.

When I used to mark exam papers, I found that if two people got the right answer they were probably both right, but if two of them got the wrong answer one of them was cribbing. Perhaps the noble Baroness can explain how that strange situation arose. Neither the Child Poverty Action Group nor Barnardo's thinks that the Government's claim is borne out by the facts. That is worrying because we would all like to see that kind of performance.

Part of the problem relates to the complexity of the system when people make claims, as referred to in the maiden speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth of Breckland. Undoubtedly, take-up is most important and perhaps the Minister will comment on that.

There are many different measures of poverty and today I shall not bore your Lordships by describing all the alternatives. Some are more quantitive than others. However, I want to make an important point. The measures most usually quoted—certainly those relating to the issue I have just discussed—depend on a certain level above the mean or the median income level and the extent to which children in families, for example, fall below the particular average. We must recognise that that target is constantly moving. The average constantly rises as incomes generally rise. Therefore, to some extent, we are talking not about poverty but about equality.

One of the stranger events of recent years is that, far from decreasing, the disparity between the rich and the poor families with children seems to have widened. There appears to be a conflict of view between the Prime Minister and the present Secretary of State for Work and Pensions as to whether that widening is to be regarded as disadvantageous. It would be helpful to have the Minister's comments.

I want to raise another important issue. Among all the measures about which we hear, little attention is paid to secondary poverty. That poverty arises not necessarily from an absolute or relative level of income but from the way in which those receiving the assistance operate. The noble Baroness, Lady Massey of Darwen, referred to smoking. Research undertaken by the Policy Studies Institute shows that an incredibly depressing amount of money is being spent on tobacco and cigarettes by low income families, including those with children. That subject needs examination but it is often neglected.

Finally, I join the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, in her comments about the Social Fund. I am sure that the Minister will point out that that was introduced by a Conservative government and has various deficiencies. I say merely that as a constituency Member of Parliament I entirely agree that the system worked badly. Indeed, my majority fell massively to about 18,500! Be that as it may, there are real concerns about the Social Fund. Barnardo's, which has already been quoted, stresses that too many families across the country in receipt of income support are having to pay back money. Furthermore, across the services, the majority of hard-pressed families are struggling to pay Social Fund loans. That means that they are living £10 or more below the rock-bottom poverty line.

The Social Security Select Committee in another place similarly expressed concern about the way in which the Social Fund system is working against the Government's key aim of reducing poverty. Its inquiries show that the discretionary fund in its present form is adding to poverty and the social exclusion of families and children by, in many cases, denying them access to the basic necessities and increasing their indebtedness.

That brings together the two themes; the international and the national. Indebtedness is a problem in the third world. As has rightly been pointed out, it is equally a problem in this country among the poor, in particular the poor with children. It would be helpful if in the generally constructive approach to the problem we looked at the interest rates which are being paid by many such families. The noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, commented on that matter.

The debate has been interesting and it could not have been better informed. All noble Lords who have spoken have great experience in the area and it is with considerable diffidence that I congratulate them. The debate has been most helpful and we look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say.

5.15 p.m.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Harrison not only on his success in the ballot today but on his powerful opening speech. The debate was wonderfully enhanced by the magnificent maiden speeches of the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth of Breckland, and the noble Lord, Lord Adebowale.

I share my noble friend's commitment to the issue. I remember—I was young at the time—George Brown being asked as an MP why he was a socialist. He said that in the 1930s when he was travelling back to London from North Wales he stopped at a roadside café. A young couple, who were trying to get to London to find work, came in and changed the baby's nappy—and they changed the nappy from one set of newspapers to another. He said that that was why he was a socialist.

As your Lordships have identified, that was absolute poverty. In the first decade of this millennium we are talking about child poverty, but it is a relative poverty. The noble Lord, Lord Higgins, was right in saying that because earnings rise incomes grow and so it is that much harder for those who are not in work to keep pace or to catch up. The perversity of that is that one way of overcoming relative poverty is to see the national wealth shrink and unemployment grow. As a result, more incomes would fall towards the mean. I would not wish to see that happen, but none the less it would explain the problem when we are talking about the concepts of relative poverty.

It has been made clear in our debate that if we ask who are the poor in our society the answer is not pensioners—although some undoubtedly are poor—and it is not disabled people—although some undoubtedly are poor. The answer is children. The face of poverty in our society today is the face of a child.

As many noble Lords said, it matters because whereas in 1979 2 million children were living in low income families, by 1997 that figure had risen to 4 million. One child in three is growing up in a low-income family. If we had done nothing, another generation would have inherited that poverty and deprivation.

The recently published report, Outcomes for Children, informs us what the risks may be. Children who grow up in poverty are less likely to do well at school; they have fewer qualifications; they leave school sooner; and, as the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, said, they are likely to truant and they may well run away. In later life, such children are three times more likely to be unemployed or in low-paid work; they are more likely to suffer ill health; and they are more likely to retire without an adequate income. As the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth, so movingly said, at worst, that may lead to violence, conflict and even abuse. It may lead to a deprivation and a degradation which may be passed on to their children in turn. It is a deformed dowry of experience.

The noble Baroness was right in saying that we need to value all the social workers who may make all the difference. That is why the Government are spending £1.5 million extra on advertising to expand the number of those in social work. It is also why, incidentally, Quality Protects is so important to ensure that those children who are the most vulnerable and damaged are given the most help possible to make a successful transition to independence and adult life. The noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, made that point.

I am sure that I shall be supported by my noble friend Lady Massey in saying on behalf of social workers that I sometimes resent the extent to which they are scapegoated for the failing in today's parenting society. They are pivotal figures and most of them do a heroic and noble job. Without their work, so many other children would be having even more deprived and degraded lives.

Who are these children? The noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, identified most of the children at risk. We know that four groups of children are especially likely to be poor. Many of the poorest will be the children of lone parents who are two-and-a-half times more likely to suffer prolonged poverty than are other children. And prolonged poverty is the poverty which scars.

They are particularly likely to be poor for two reasons. First, usually their mothers—the parent with care—are unlikely to be in work, and hence our welfare to work strategy. They are also likely to be poor because they are in a fractured family and thus unlikely to be receiving child support, and hence our child support reforms. Those two factors are connected. Women on income support who receive maintenance are twice as likely then to move into work. Child maintenance serves as a form of privatised family credit to springboard those families out of poverty. That is why I believe that our child support reforms are so important because they will benefit a further 1 million children.

The second group of children likely to experience poverty are those in larger families. In the period 1991–97, one-third of children in large families, compared with 15 per cent of children in smaller families, were classified as having persistently low incomes. Often that group overlaps with another; namely, ethnic minority families. Again, that problem was identified by the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne. Although Britain is a multi-racial society, we know that some of our ethnic communities are far more likely than others to suffer severe disadvantage. In 1996–97, for example, seven out of 10 families with a Pakistani or Bangladeshi head were in the poorest fifth of income distribution. Proportionately, they should have comprised two in 10 families, but in fact the figure was seven in 10. The result of that is clear and noble Lords have already pointed out that it is parental poverty which produces child poverty. Whereas 30 per cent of white children live in poverty, 60 per cent of Pakistani/Bangladeshi children do so.

I turn to the final group, about which I am slightly surprised not to have heard mention during the debate. I refer here to families where either an adult or a child suffers from a disability or a long-term illness. A disabled child, however much richness it brings to family life, at the same time creates financially a disabled family. Whereas 28 per cent of all children are in the bottom quintile of incomes, that percentage rises to 44 per cent of children where either they or their parents are disabled.

What are we doing about the problem? We are determined to reverse the growth of the numbers of children living in poverty through our policies to tackle worklessness, to increase financial support and to improve public services in the form of the environment and in particular education services for such children. The noble Lord, Lord Adebowale, emphasised that latter point.

The best route—probably the only long-term and sustainable route out of poverty—is work. In 1979, 10 per cent of children lived in workless households. In 1997, that figure has risen to almost 20 per cent. At the same time, the number of children living in poverty had tripled. The noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, supported by the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, asked about the statistics in play—which is why earlier I intervened in the debate.

Nowadays, some 300,000 children are in poverty than was the case when the Government took office. But there would have been 1.2 million more children in poverty had the policies we inherited in 1997 continued. That is why the two statistics vary. It is important to point that out; otherwise there appears to be a crossing of wires.

We are providing help and advice to families wishing to return to work through programmes like the New Deal. At the core of that scheme is the personal adviser, the work-focused interview and Jobcentre Plus. I too respect the right of parents, in particular those with young children, to reach a decision about what is best for their child as regards whether they do or do not move into work. However, it is interesting to note that half of the lone parents coming on to the New Deal have children under the age of five. Why are they doing that? They are the parents who were most recently in work and they want to return to work. That is their choice.

One lone parent of a young child told me, "I don't want my child growing up thinking that grown-ups do not work". Another lone parent of one child of two years and another of five years said that, "Work for me is not the second-best way of supporting and looking after my children; it is the best way I have of being a parent". That is why the strategies that we have put in place are so important.

However, we must also ensure that when parents do move into work, that work must pay. As a result of the working families' tax credit and our proposals for the new integrated child credit which I shall have the pleasure of bringing before the House in a few months' time, I believe that we shall be able to achieve what was called for by my noble friend Lord Desai; that is, to introduce effectively a portable citizen's income for children. The statistics are important here.

My noble friend Lady Thornton pressed me on the implications of the working families' tax credit for children living in poverty. We know that what matters is the entry wage, because it is that which brings a lone parent into work. We know also that most lone parents work part-time, on average between 16 and 22 to 24 hours per week. Quite rightly, those parents need to balance childcare against the hours of work. In other words, unlike most men, lone parents cannot extend their incomes by working longer hours to compensate. For someone working for only 16 hours per week and receiving the minimum wage of £4.10 an hour, that hourly pay is raised by working families' tax credit to £11 per hour. Adding in child benefit and taking off average housing costs results in net pay for working 16 hours per week of a sum in the order of £10 per hour. The result of our interventions means that such a parent can more than double her hourly rate of pay. That is before child maintenance is added, which on average is worth £35 per week.

Obviously for someone in full-time work—over 30 to 35 hours per week—there is far less need for working families' tax credit and therefore that help tapers out. But whereas the minimum income for a family working part-time would be in the order of £160 per week, for a family working full-time they would have at least £202 per week before any question of maintenance would come into play.

Baroness Walmsley

My Lords, does the Minister agree that she has just cited a perfect example of the complexity of the benefits system? Would not a minimum income be a great deal simpler?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, we have put in place the minimum wage. That is what people can earn. What I seek to suggest is that because a minimum wage applies to everyone, it can take no account of personal circumstances because that wage would be paid to a single person of 25, as it would to the 35 year-old lone parent caring for two or three children, as well as it would to the Bangladeshi family who may have six children. The point of working families' tax credit is that it builds on the minimum wage and adds to that an income which is tailored to a family's particular needs, thus ensuring that work pays in comparison with the benefits entitlement—also tailored to individual need—that they would otherwise receive. I hope that, as a result of that explanation, the noble Baroness will endorse the policies and strategies that the Government are seeking to achieve.

Over the past few years I think that we have acted appropriately. I do not suggest that the schemes are not without complexity. Social security is a complicated matter. But the structure is simple and I believe that we are helping to take children and their families out of poverty. For example, in cash terms since 1997, we have doubled the allowance on income support for children under the age of 11. By 2003, we will have virtually doubled the additional premia for a disabled child in a household on income support, in cash terms.

Furthermore, we have delivered record increases in child benefit. We have increased the Sure Start maternity grant from £100 when we inherited the scheme to £500 next April. That enormous increase, together with the payment of the child tax credit, may go some way to meet what the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, was calling for; namely, extra support for parents during their child's early years.

The noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, and the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, supported by the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, raised the issue of debt and queried whether the social fund was adequate to meet the debt burden faced by families living in poverty. I absolutely agree that debt is a major problem for such families. However, I think that noble Lords were unjust in their approach to the purpose of the social fund. The interest-free budgetary loans of the social fund have been designed to even out lumpy expenditure and to do so in ways that are interest-free, compared with the problems—rightly identified by the noble Baroness—of the pawn shop, loan sharks, brokers and the like. Of course we support the credit unions, but experience has demonstrated that they work only when the majority of those belonging to the credit union are employed and thus have moneys available to make savings. The problems of budgeting for loans are largely borne by those living on benefits. Once people have been in work for a time, they begin to accrue sufficient income to meet their debt problems.

My noble friend Lady Thornton asked about the situation in regard to 16 to 17 year-olds. We want and expect children of 16 and 17 to be in work, education or training, but 36,000 are on income support and JSA, many of whom would otherwise experience severe hardship. We are not expecting to return to the days when such children were treated as adults and given benefit. We believe that they are entitled to the protection, support and opportunities of children—and that means help into work and, above all, help into education and training.

I am sorry to talk about money, benefit levels and so on, but poverty is about money and the lack of it. But, as many noble Lords—particularly the noble Lord, Lord Adebowale—have said, it is not only about income; it is about public services, education, health and poor housing. I am delighted that the Rowntree report, as the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, acknowledged, identified that we have moved forward on almost all of these criteria.

Initiatives such as Sure Start, the Children's Fund and the Healthy Schools programme—which was mentioned by my noble friend Lady Massey and covers a range of subjects from apples to speech therapy—are only three in a number of programmes that we have introduced to ensure that children have the best start in life and to break the cycle of deprivation between generations.

My noble friend asked me how, despite that, we will co-ordinate initiatives. We have a new Cabinet Committee for children and young people, chaired by the Chancellor of the Exchequer; we have a new children and young persons unit, which has an advisory forum of young people to feed into and enrich its proceedings; and we have a series of interlocking sub-committees on children. I serve on a children and young persons at risk committee; on the Sure Start advisory committee; on the childcare review committee; and on the family and communities Committee. I have, obviously, a particular concern for child poverty and the parents affected by it.

I think, I hope, I believe, I trust that we will—I know that we must—deliver on child poverty. But before I finish, I should like to touch on our obligations to the international community, so movingly spoken to by my noble friend Lord Harrison and other noble Lords. One in five of the world's population lives on less than one US dollar per day. Child poverty causes appalling suffering and jeopardises well being. Poverty reduction through sustainable development and the improved welfare of people cannot be achieved without bringing children out of deprivation.

The best way of tackling child poverty is to address the causes of community poverty. Each year, more than 10 million children still die before the age of five, with 95 per cent of those deaths occurring in developing countries. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Guildford raised this point and particularly mentioned the children orphaned by AIDS. We have made significant progress in establishing the global fund to fight AIDS, TB and malaria, which was announced at the G8 meeting in Genoa in July 2001 and which will be up and running in the new year. The UK has pledged more than 200 million US dollars and the pledges overall amount already to more than 1 billion US dollars, which I hope will go some way to addressing the problems identified.

We must protect the health of women; we must intervene on children's education; we must seek to challenge the concept of child labour which, at its worst and in its most abusive forms, puts children in physical and moral danger.

We know that children are terribly affected by conflict, which perpetuates poverty and reverses development. Of the 34 countries farthest from meeting the poverty eradication targets, 20 are in the midst of armed conflict or have only recently emerged from it. Ethnic and intra-community violence often leads to the destruction of families and brings a heavy burden of suffering on women and children. We are seeking to help displaced children and to reduce community conflict.

Next year, at the postponed United Nations Special Session on Children, the world will have the opportunity to renew and strengthen the commitment it made to children at the 1990 World Summit for Children. We expect a full range of measures to be embraced, including children's rights to health and education, and to protection from conflict, exploitation and mistreatment.

The United Kingdom will wholeheartedly join this global commitment to the children of the world. Children anywhere and everywhere, at home and elsewhere, deserve no less.

5.35 p.m.

Lord Harrison

My Lords, the yarns spun by the noble Baronesses, Lady Howarth and Lady Walmsley, about being down at heel and put out at the elbow, made for a darn good speech. It has been a darn good debate this afternoon. I thank all noble Lords who have spoken—including the usual suspects and the two new prospects—for their contributions. I congratulate the Minister, who will henceforth be known as "The Minister for Joshing out money". In the spirit of what the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Guildford said about the proximity of Christmas, perhaps I may, in offering season's greetings to the whole House, beg leave to withdraw my Motion for Papers.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.

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