On 29th February 2016, the House of Lords considered changes made in the House of Commons to the Government’s Welfare and Work Reform Bill. Earlier, MPs had voted to reject an amendment to the Bill tabled by the Bishop of Durham and passed by the House of Lords, which made it a duty of the Secretary of State to report annually on income measures of child poverty. In its place Lord Freud, Minister for Welfare Reform, tabled an alternative Government amendment in the Lords, to require government to annually publish the child poverty income measures, without requiring a report to be laid before Parliament. The Bishop of Durham, the Rt Revd Paul Butler, and the Bishop of Portsmouth, the Rt Revd Christopher Foster, both welcomed this concession by Government. Lord Freud’s speech introducing that amendment can be seen here. The Bishop of Durham’s response is below. The Bishop of Portsmouth’s response can be seen here.
The Lord Bishop of Durham: My Lords, throughout our debates on the Bill, we have all consistently expressed our desire to see child poverty in our nation reduced and, ultimately, eradicated. We have different views about how this might best be achieved, and about the impact the Bill will have. I continue to have deep concerns about its impact. I fear that it will lead to more children and families being poor.
Having said that, I fully agree that, in most cases, the best way out of poverty is through work, and work that is better paid. I remain unconvinced that the measures in the Bill will have the complete effect suggested. Among the many concerns that a wide range of noble Lords and those outside the House have expressed has been the matter of the publication of the information and statistics on financial poverty. The Government have consistently noted that to work simply on financial targets in relation to child poverty is inadequate, and I have consistently agreed.
I meet children from very affluent backgrounds who are poor. They are poor because they lack being loved. Sometimes, their parents are working so many hours to maintain a wealthy lifestyle that they give no time to their child. Such children in homes where money is plentiful have been emotionally starved and, generally, spiritually malnourished. Theirs is a different kind of poverty.
I meet children from very poor backgrounds, in terms of financial income, who are rich in being loved and cared for by their parents or parent. They are emotionally strong, doing well at school and have a wealth of spiritual life. In many cases, they have a parent, or sometimes two, in work but on low wages and working only part time, the latter often because the parent prioritises—rightly, in my view—time with their child over time away from them simply to earn more cash. They are not poor in very many ways.
It is right to look properly at life chances, therefore, because issues of educational achievement, work, housing and the like have a serious impact on children’s lives now and their long-term life chances.
There is also a danger that, with only financial modelling of poverty, the very poorest are not properly helped. Strategies can be worked that just lift people above a specific target, rather than supporting those who are persistently and consistently the very poorest in financial terms. However, along with the almost unanimous view of academics and practitioners from the areas of healthcare, social care, education, economics and other disciplines, I share the conviction that lack of finance is one of the factors that places children in poverty, and that this affects their life chances. The evidence is clear that income poverty impacts cognitive development, school achievement, social and emotional development and health.
Absolutely, that is compounded significantly when other factors are also considered, and they too must be tackled, but not to take seriously the reality of financial poverty would be a major mistake. As the wise proverbialist Agur, from the book of Proverbs, said:
“give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with the food that is needful for me, lest I be full and deny you and say, ‘Who is the Lord?’ or lest I be poor and steal and profane the name of my God”.
The four indicators that have been used since 2003 work well together. It is how they are worked together that matters: any one standing alone and being used alone is inadequate. So I am delighted that the Government have decided to listen to the arguments and agreed to make a statutory provision for the continued publication of those figures. I think that a persistent poverty figure could well be a very useful addition, although how it is arrived at will need to be as robustly worked through as have been the existing, well-tested measures. It will be important, if it is to be a valuable addition, that it be as rigorously tested as they are.
In conclusion, I thank the Minister, and his team, for the time that he has given us and for how they have listened and worked with us to reach the conclusion that stands before us today in relation to publishing financial child poverty figures. These last weeks have been an interesting journey for myself and my colleagues on this Bench. We are pleased to have been able to serve those whom it is most important we serve well, the children in our nation who are living in poverty—a poverty which all of us must keep striving to end, and which I believe the publication of these figures will assist.
Lord Freud: My Lords, I thank noble Lords for their contributions and thank the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham, who led in this area. I will make just one or two short points. In response to the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, I remind him that the forecasts of what happens to this measure of relative income are notoriously difficult to get right. I have been in this House on several occasions when there have been dire warnings that child poverty is about to go up over the next two years, but when you get to the figures two years later, it has not happened. I therefore hate having to defend myself against things that do not happen—it is bad enough having to defend myself against things that happen.
We have had a very useful debate on this area in this House. The point is that the debate succeeded in unpicking the concerns that noble Lords had, which is why we were able to find common ground. We are not in agreement in this area in our approach but we have found common ground here, and I hope both sides will be able to live with this amendment. However, I want to give some reassurance. One of the reasons we have brought forward this amendment is because we wanted to reassure the House and other people around the country that we take this whole issue seriously—that we have an agenda and we want to do something about this. We did not want to leave this issue with the impression that we were not taking it seriously. I can agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, that I am convinced, as she is, that the publication of the HBAI will not go by without comment by someone on each occasion.
I will pick up on the point made by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Portsmouth, although I need to give him a two-handed answer. As I said when we went through this, we have separate arrangements—a specific set of payments—for bereavement. However, on domestic violence, which we dealt with specifically when we discussed it earlier, the right reverend Prelate has made reasoned arguments; I repeat my acknowledgement that this will remain an area of interest, at least for them, and anticipate the natural corollary of that. With those few words, I urge noble Lords to agree to the Motion.
Motion A agreed