Thursday 22nd February 2024

(3 months ago)

Lords Chamber
Read Full debate Read Hansard Text Watch Debate Read Debate Ministerial Extracts
Baroness D'Souza Portrait Baroness D'Souza (CB)
- View Speech - Hansard - -

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Bird, on securing this debate, although I do not necessarily agree with all his views. I also take this opportunity to thank the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham—Bishop Paul, as we know him—for his significant contributions to the work of this House, particularly in the area of children. I also add how much we look forward to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Hereford’s maiden speech in this debate.

Poverty, whether relative or absolute, is difficult to understand fully unless it has been personally experienced. It means, among other things: never going to the movies; shopping only for the cheapest basics; no holidays; not being able to afford a warm winter coat or new shoes; no birthday parties for children as they cannot afford to take a present; not being able to afford bus fares; living in constant fear of the fridge breaking down; and, at the poorest end, hunger, cold and periods of destitution for those households. The consequences of such deprivation are, as we have heard from the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, deep and long lasting for children, who continue throughout their lives to underperform in all development measures. Poverty affects life chances from day one.

This is a bleak picture, yet official statistics reveal that 11 million people in the UK—17%—are relatively poor and a shocking 13% live in absolute poverty. This, as we have heard, is the worst level in Europe. It is unacceptable, but is likely to get worse as the cost of living crisis continues. As of July 2023, 6.1 million people were claiming universal credit. Additional support includes energy discounts, extra pension payments and free prescriptions. It is not as if the Government are unaware or unwilling to acknowledge widespread poverty or to act to limit it. To my mind, the somewhat courageous levelling-up programme, with its four admirable missions, is one example—but it is not working. Poverty rates have not changed significantly since 2010-11.

Much is known about the causes of absolute poverty; indeed, a great deal is now known about how best to alleviate it. The following factors, for example, increase vulnerability: the two-child limit on income-related benefit, the cap on benefits, debt reductions from benefits and the five-week wait for the first payment. If you have no money and have exhausted all family and other networks for temporary financial help, five weeks is a very long time both for adults and, most especially, for young children. Overall, basic benefit rates are simply inadequate to temper the effects of the current recession.

Large numbers of households continue to fall into the gaps—gaps created in part by the plurality of government departments mandated to carry out anti-poverty programmes. Today, according to my count, there are at least eight different government departments with a particular responsibility to administer benefit programmes, from child tax credit to income support. Experience suggests that these departments too often fail to communicate and co-ordinate programmes. Most important of all is the failure to design and adhere to a comprehensive child poverty strategy that should run through all social welfare thinking and planning.

Such a programme would build on a basic acceptance that more money is necessary to underpin child benefit and make it universal, to raise the minimum wage, expand free school meals and support quality childcare costs. The key elements of a universal strategy across a broad range of policy areas, with key targets, timelines and regular reporting, need clear leadership and infrastructure. It is also essential that affected families, including children, are involved in policy development in this area and to make it as central to planning as climate change is, or is about to become.

In an average class of 30 children, nine will be living in poverty. It is a political choice whether we can, in all conscience, continue to live with this statistic.