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Lord Haskel: My Lords, I, too, would like to talk about child poverty. In 1996 and 1997, Yvette Cooper, now a Minister, persuaded the Smith Institute to run a series of seminars on work commissioned from the Centre for Longitudinal Studies. I declare an interest as chair then, and indeed now, of the Smith Institute. These longitudinal studies are fascinating. The centre has been interviewing the same people since 1958 and has followed families over generations. The point that Yvette wanted to bring out was that disadvantage was passed on from generation to generation. The presentations by Professor Heather Joshi and Professor John Bynner persuaded me not only of that, but that the seeds of this disadvantage were sown at a very early age, long before children even went to school. The long-term consequences affected children's lives in education, as the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, said, in health, as my noble friend
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Lord Giddens said, and eventually in the labour market. The research showed that the consequences of child poverty were difficult to reverse at a later stage, and that the long-term consequences have a profound effect on our society and economy.
The reaction of the new Government was to take this much more seriously than I had dared to hope. My noble friend Lord Giddens reminded us that in March 1999 the Prime Minister said that ours was to be the generation that would end child poverty in Britain, and that he undertook to do it in 20 years. Shortly afterwards, the Chancellor put it like this:
The task is considerable. Nearly one in three children lived in relative income poverty in 1997, compared with one in seven in 1979. That meant that, in 1997, 4.2 million children lived in poverty. The target was to reduce that number by a quarter each five years, but the first target was missed. Of course that is disappointing, but it does not detract one iota from the fact that there are now 800,000 fewer children living in poverty in this country.
Perhaps the target was missed because tackling child poverty is complicated. It is not associated only with worklessnesswith households that have nobody in workas there are other aspects. For instance, a quarter of poor children live in households with one or more disabled adult. My noble friend Lord Giddens told us that over half the Pakistani and Bangladeshi children live in poor households, as do 43 per cent of the children from black or other ethnic-group families. Improving the life chances of children born in poverty is not simple. Indeed, there are many other aspects not even remotely under the control of the Government. Parenting, genetics, aspirations and class all have an influence. That is why I find it a little disappointing that some complain about missed targets. But, in view of the Government's commitment, I hope that the Treasury's Comprehensive Spending Review next year will give priority to this project, so that we can be back on target by 2010.
The Tories, of course, were sceptical about this. They had finally come round to equality of opportunitya kind of level playing field at birth. However, the research demonstrated that the approach had to be focused on the entire family's life cycle. The Government understood that and acted through a range of services. My noble friend listed some of them. There is increased social housing, the financial inclusion fund, the Social Fund, the children's fund and children's trusts, as well as Sure Start, affordable childcare and early education. But what has attracted most attention is tax credits for children. Child tax credits were used because they target the needs and circumstances of the whole household, and not just the child. We must remember
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that the research demonstrated that the family was the principal means by which advantage and disadvantage was passed on to children.
The Tories opposed the introduction of tax credits. They now justify their opposition on the basis of the errors and difficulties in the credits' administration. Yes, there are problems, and yes, there is fraud. The tax credits are more complicated than child benefits, because they are designed to adapt quickly to the changing circumstances of families. However, they deliver more money to families than the old benefits and the take-up is just as high or even higher. So I hope the Government will not be deterred by the condemnation and the criticism from working to improve the system while maintaining its flexibility. The performance will improve. It always does when introducing new IT systems, whether in the public or private sectors.
I hope the Minister will remember that the real reason the Tories condemned the child tax benefit system was that they believed that poor families would just spend the extra money on booze and cigarettes. They were wrong. Research has shown time and again that as families move out of poverty they spend less, not more, on alcohol and tobacco.
The Tories also argue that this is just another example of wasteful public spending. That is the politics of the last century. We have shown that the provision of public services by the state serves an economic purpose. In the 21st century virtually everyone now accepts the argument that a fair society and a strong economy go hand in hand. The dilemma for the Government is how to run these public services better to match the rising expectations of the public.
My noble friend Lord Giddens spoke of cross-party agreement. Perhaps the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, when she comes to wind up, can tell us whether the Tory Party now accepts the argument. That is important because, if it does, the elimination of child poverty can become part of a progressive consensus in this country and not a political football; a consensus that means no future Government of any other political party will attempt to dismantle the mechanism set up to eliminate child poverty.
To the Minister I say that we are making a difference. We are changing people's lives, and in the long run we will transform them. But that takes time and so we have to continue to build on what we have achieved. We have to get the emphasis right and make the system work better. We have to work towards consensus so that the system cannot be dismantled. I hope the Government will work hard to continue this programme and ignore the pressure to move on to the next initiative, which is always a temptation.
If I have any criticism, it is of our failure to connect the elimination of child poverty to a Labour Government. I think it is perceived more as a crusade by celebrities and charities. I hope my noble friend will take steps to correct that, and firmly connect that aim to a Labour Government initiative, a vision of which we can all be proud.
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The Earl of Listowel: My Lords, I also thank the noble Lord, Lord Giddens, for calling this important debate. I welcome the vivid vignette he produced of the Omar family. I warmly welcome the fact that the Government are ensuring that families spend no more than a couple of months in bed-and-breakfast accommodation.
It was uplifting to hear the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, talk about the role schools can play in helping families get their children out of poverty and improving their life chances. He made a very good case for introducing the Children Act's five outcomesstaying healthy, enjoying achieving, making a contribution, staying safe and economic independence sustainabilityto schools.
The Minister is enthusiastic about the schools-within-schools programme. What struck me most recently when I heard a presentation on that programme was the way it seeks to create an intimate atmosphere within schools, with small tutorial groups, older pupils having the opportunity to coach younger pupils, and pupils getting to know their form tutor well. I think this would improve the life chances for those children; not only their academic achievement, but also their quality of life.
It is hard for me to comment on the financial side. I have never experienced financial insecurity. However, perhaps I may comment on the services for vulnerable children and families. I would appreciate the Minister taking back this message to the Department for Education and Skills and to the Minister responsible for the review of services to looked-after children in the forthcoming Green Paper. There needs to be a more strategic focus to ensure a range of good-quality, appropriate placements for looked-after childrenfoster care and residential care.
I welcome what the Government have done for looked-after children since 1997. I think particularly of the work of the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, with the Children (Leaving Care) Act, the Children and Adoption Bill and the introduction of a right to advocacy for looked-after children. Those are a few of many examples of the Government's commitment to these children. I know that the Minister will accept that there was much to do. The neglect had been long lasting. There is still far to go to improve outcomes. I know that we are of the same mind.
Those children come often from the most impoverished families. The number of children being taken into care is increasing. I am glad to see that more are being placed in kinship care than in the past. A young woman in care is two and a half times more likely to become pregnant during her teenage years than her peers outside of care. It is estimated that one in four young women leaving care are pregnant or already have a child. It is estimated that 50 per cent of young women who have left care between the ages of 18 and 24 will have had a child. I draw these figures from the review of this area of work by the Social Care Institute for Excellence.
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To tackle the cycle of poverty to which the noble Lord, Lord Haskel, referred, we need to focus continually and in a sustained way on meeting the needs of those children and their families. Crucial to that is the childcare workforce. I note the comments of the noble Lady, Lady Saltoun, about these disturbing cases. There is a danger that those working with families and children from this background may be encouraged to play God. It is so easy for one to slip into the trap of using these opportunities to intervene and shape the lives of families and children and to be drawn into the "vice" of hubris. That is why such workers need to be well trained and superbly supported in order to continue to deliver an excellent service to families over many years. In many ways they are either damned if they intervene or damned if they do not. It is a difficult, challenging andit should bean often rewarding job which is not well enough supported.
I welcome the registration of social workers. The Government have recently extended the diploma qualification to a graduate qualification, a qualification which countries on the Continent have had for many years. That graduate degree is very welcome. Regrettably, I sense that an overstretched, overworked workforce, often with too heavy a case load, has to a degree experienced a breakdown. Although we are now recruiting more social workers, I am concerned that many will move quickly away from frontline work to management and other areas because the culture has been so debased over time. It needs a continuing effort. I am grateful for the work of the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, and the Children's Workforce Development Council for taking that forward.
I understand that there is a shortage of 10,000 foster carers in England alone. At a presentation last year the chief inspector of the Commission for Social Care Inspection pointed out that 40 per cent of looked-after children were in inappropriate placements. I was grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, for pointing out the level of instability in placements for children in care which must arise from that. Having said that, much is being done by the Government to recruit and retain more social workers. I welcome the work being done on looking at the minimum allowances for foster carers. In Denmark foster carers are normally paid a fee for their work. Many of ours are increasingly being paid such a fee but we need to see how we can take that forward more quickly.
On residential care, and principally children's homes for looked-after children, there has been improvement in this sector too with a high requirement for staff qualifications. Sir William Utting's reviews of safeguards in this area have produced encouraging reports. My concern here is the need for a long-term view. Good-quality children's homes are expensive to run. Hilton Dawson, a former Member of the other place and now chief executive of Shaftesbury Homes and Arethusa, a charity providing principally children's homes and with a very glowing record on the academic achievement of its children, recently said that the low occupancy rates of his
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charity's children's homes was jeopardising the continuing success of his charity. My understanding is that the cost of these services is proving a burden on local authorities, that they often think short term and that independent providers, while they often provide very good services, are also very flexible and respond to what is required of them. They will provide poorer quality emergency provision for children in children's homes and therefore they tend to undermine the higher quality services around them.
That needs to be looked at carefully. I know that we will discuss it on Monday night. But at a recent meeting of the All-Party Group on Children and Young People in Care, one young man talked of his 34 different placements and a young woman in residential care talked of how so many of her peers were entering the criminal justice system, as if she felt that she was being prepared for that. I look forward to the Minister's response.
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