HL Deb 10 July 2001 vol 626 cc1006-9

3 p.m.

Lord Northbourne

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether their pledge to eradicate child poverty relates only to the financial poverty of families or whether they also intend to address the cycle of disadvantage and deprivation which affects many families.

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

My Lords, both. Our Opportunity For All report sets out our commitment to tackle child poverty in all its forms. Our reforms to the tax and benefit system will improve family incomes and we are also helping parents to move into work. In order to break the cycle of disadvantage we are also committed to raising educational standards, tackling health inequalities and supporting young people at risk.

Lord Northbourne

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that encouraging Answer and I congratulate the Government on all that they are doing. I agree that lack of money can be a serious impediment to overcoming other kinds of disadvantage, but does the noble Baroness agree that some forms of disadvantage are not associated with lack of money; for example, being a member of a nonfunctional family? Such a situation leads to lack of self-confidence, lack of social skills and lack of motivation to undertake education.

If those and similar problems are not addressed at the same time as addressing the financial problems of poor families, is there not little chance that such children will be able to pull themselves out of disadvantage? All the money that the Government are spending on defeating poverty in the short term will then be wasted in the long term.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, I agree with much of what the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, said. It is the case that the poorest and most vulnerable children are those of lone parents. We know that the daughters of lone parents do well—they stay on at school, do not become pregnant and go into work—if their mothers are in work. The sons of lone parents do well—they do not get into trouble with the police, do not truant, stay on at school, gain qualifications and go into work—if they are in contact with their natural fathers. There is therefore a combination of family income and family support.

That is why I am so pleased, as I am sure is the noble Lord, that the Home Office is funding Fathers Direct to the tune of £250,000. That organisation was started by Jack O'Sullivan and Adrienne Burgess, highly reputed people in the sector, in particular to help further develop parenting skills so that we can ensure that deprivation and disadvantage are not handed down the generations.

Lord Higgins

My Lords, we all agree that it is important to tackle poverty in all its forms. The Government have expressed their main objective in quantitative terms and have said that, as a result of the Chancellor's measures, 1.2 million children will be lifted out of poverty by the end of the year. However, it may well be that many people do not understand the changes made by the Chancellor, which in some cases are extraordinarily complex. What assumption has been made about the take-up of the various benefits which are designed to achieve the Government's objective?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, as regards the figure of 1.2 million, had the previous government's 1997 policies continued until today, and had this Government's policies of a minimum wage, working families' tax credit and increases in child benefit not come into play, 1.2 million more children would be in poverty.

As regards the take-up of benefits, the minimum wage applies across the board, as do child benefit and income support rates. Furthermore, I am most pleased to be able to report that when we came into power a child of 10 received from income support £17 a week but today that child receives £34 a week. The sum has doubled in four years.

Noble Lords will therefore realise that we are tackling the problems of poverty and of disadvantage.

The Lord Bishop of Manchester

My Lords, I welcome Her Majesty's Government's pledge to eradicate child poverty and I am aware that the Government are doing a great deal of work on appropriate levels of minimum income guarantees for pensioners and minimum wages for labourers and workers. However, will the Minister now encourage the Government to undertake the necessary research to achieve minimum income standards for those living in poverty to sustain healthy living? Such research has yet to be done.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, as the right reverend Prelate will know, it is the Government's intention later this year to introduce a Bill which will allow us to develop the integrated child credit. That will bring together, both for adults and children, the support for children elements, the income support elements and what currently is working families' tax credit. As a result, families of working age will be able to move from a minimum wage to a minimum income. I hope that that will meet the right reverend Prelate's concerns.

Earl Russell

My Lords, further to the second half of the Question on the Order Paper, will the Minister give the House the latest available figures for unemployment among black males under the age of 25?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, I am grateful that the noble Earl was able to give me notice of his question so that I can share the information with the House. There will be a Statement later today on the situation, particularly in Bradford, but the figures are striking. Only 31 per cent of young ethnic minority men and women between the ages of 16 and 24 in Bradford, for example, are in work. Nationally, for ethnic minority young people the figure is 40 per cent. For the country as a whole, including people of all communities, the figure is 65 per cent. In other words, the figure in Bradford is less than half the national average.

Baroness Young

My Lords, perhaps I may return to the important point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne. I welcome the money which the Government have given to help children, but does the Minister agree that it is very important to support the families and to encourage marriage? We have a situation in which nearly 40 per cent of live births are outside marriage and that creates a situation in which far more young people are likely to get into difficulties. In the light of that, does the Minister agree that it is important that the Government should support marriage as well as children?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, the number of teenage unmarried mothers, to use the old phrase, has fallen by 4 per cent since 1997 and the number of those young women now in either education or work has risen from 17 per cent to 31 per cent in the past three or four years. Therefore, the situation in which children are having children has been improving for our society.

However, what matters to me is that children thrive. They can do so in a variety of relationships, which can be marriage ideally but also steady and robust cohabitation. What matters is that children thrive and families come in all shapes and sizes. It is important to the Government not only that we ensure a decent income for children through the new integrated child credit and that the parents have the opportunity for work through the new deals and so forth, but that the life chances associated with poverty in terms of education, health and well-being are also tackled. I hope that the whole House will join with us in that programme.