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Mr. Ernie Ross (Dundee, West): My right hon. Friend will recall that when he spoke to the all-party group on poverty at the end of February, he promised that a consultation document would be issued shortly on how the Government measure child poverty. Can he say more about that?
For the past three years the Government have published in their "Opportunity for All" series three separate measures of povertyabsolute poverty, persistent levels of poverty and relative poverty. We also set out measures of deprivation in relation to education, health and so on. All of them are important.
Over the past year or so, academics and others have asked whether we would consider measuring poverty in different ways, as is the case in other countries. Indeed, the hon. Member for Havant said that we should go to other countries with open minds to see what is on offer. That is precisely what we are doing. When he is travelling round Europe looking at health systems, perhaps he should also look at the way in which poverty is measured there.
We are setting out in clear terms what we have done and possible alternative ways of measuring poverty, many of which owe much to Professor John Hills of the London School of Economics. The Government are neutral on whether or not we change the measures that we use. We have an open mind. We are consulting and we will hear what people have to say. One thing is important, however. On any measure whatsoever, child poverty in this country is coming down. The Conservatives could never say that.
It is obvious, especially in respect of relative poverty, that as a result of what we are doing, even at a time when the country's wealth is growing spectacularly, we are narrowing the gap between the richest and the poorest in the country. That is a measure of how much we are doing. The child tax credit which comes in next year will for the first time provide a single system of income-related support for families and children. That in itself will make a major contribution towards the eradication of child poverty.
Mr. Willetts: I have a simple question for the Secretary of State. I look forward to reading his paper. Of course there are many ways of measuring child poverty, but we need an assurance that the target which he, the Chancellor and the Prime Minister set of taking 1 million children out of poverty and eliminating child poverty using the measure of 60 per cent. of median income still stands. The right hon. Gentleman can measure poverty in many different ways, but his target was formulated in terms of 60 per cent. of median income. Does he stand by that target?
Mr. Darling: The target that we set was to eradicate child poverty within a generation, and by 2004 to be a quarter of the way towards that. The public service agreement target is in place and we will stick to it. I am happy to tell the hon. Gentleman that we are about a third of the way towards meeting it in time, and about a third of the way along in terms of the number of children removed from poverty. I thank him very much for raising that point; I much appreciate it.
Let me return to the child tax credit. One of the big differences that it makes is that, for the first time, the tax system will recognise parents' obligations towards their children and the new demands that they bring. It allows parents to get help when they need it most and to take a break from their work without the catastrophic drop in income that they might otherwise have suffered. It treats families equitably. Alongside child benefit, on which it builds, the child tax credit provides support to families with incomes of up to £58,000, paid to the main carer. Some 90 per cent. of families will benefit, and many Budget commentators have noted the great effect that the policy has on so many families. Despite yesterday's national insurance increase, many families will gain from substantial reductions in the amount that they pay because of its implementation.
To pave the way towards the more generous credit, we will increase the child allowances in income support and jobseeker's allowance by £3.50 a week from October this year. That will mean that the amount paid to parents on income support to help them support their children will have gone up by 85 per cent. since 1997. We are also introducing other measures such as the extension of support for child care costs to help with approved child care in people's homes. That will particularly help people on shift work, who have had difficulties in the past.
All in all, we are introducing measures that will make a great deal of difference to many people and families in this country. Every single measure is opposed by the Conservative party. I listened to what the hon. Member for Havant had to say about these measures, but it returned us to the same problem that the Conservatives have with health. What they are against is spending more money, whether on health, tackling poverty or supporting families. I have considered the hon. Gentleman's argument; indeed, he has produced the same one month after month, so I can assure hon. Members who do not usually attend such debates that they get no better. He has a familiar style and always returns to the same point: he is against complexity. However, he has had to admit, as even the professor who speaks for the Liberals admits, that no matter what happens, support must be provided for people on low incomes. Inevitably, that means making some sort of assessment of people's need and income, but when it comes down to it, the Conservatives are against the fact that we are spending more money. When they say that they want a simpler system, they really mean that they want a meaner one. The hon. Gentleman kept mentioning family credit, but when we consider the family credit system to which he is so attached, we see that it is far from simple. Like the basic state pension, people think that it is simple, but it is complex when it is considered in detail.
When the Government came to office, lone parents were receiving an average of about £58 a week from family credit. By November last year, after the introduction of the working families tax credit, they were getting an average of more than £88 a week£30 a week more. The amount will increase again as a result of the Budget. That is what upsets the Conservatives: the fact that we are spending more money.
So the argument is not about whether to help families on low and modest incomes, but about the level at which that help is set. There is nothing complex about that, as the hon. Member for Havant will find out when he knocks on doors at the next election. Even if he cannot do the maths, he will find that the voters can, just as he found when he proposed the abolition of the winter fuel payment, on which I seem to remember that the maths was also straightforward. Opposition Members need to focus on this point: for families with an income of less than £50,000 a year, the child tax credit will guarantee support for a first child of £26.50 a week, compared with only £11 in 1997. For families with an income of less than £13,000, it will guarantee an income of £54.25 a week, whether the parents are in or out of work. That is almost double the help that was available in 1997; it is about £28 a week more.
Even if the Conservatives cannot do the maths, families can. So too can pensioners, about whom the hon. Gentleman's argument is exactly the same. He is against the fact that the pension credit, which will take effect next year, will benefit about half of all pensioners. On average, it will give pensioner households about £400 a year. If the hon. Gentleman is against that, it is fine by me, but he will have some explaining to do. Not only are pensioners who pay tax not affected by the national insurance changes announced yesterday, but as their tax allowances are increasing above inflation next year, we will take a further 170,000 of them out of tax all together.
We have heard the Conservatives set out exactly the same approach on health that the hon. Gentleman has set out on families and pensions. They use exactly the same strategy: they rubbish the extra investment, say that it is impossible to do anything and then argue for cutting the money. The Conservative health spokesman said at a private meetingit is a shame that he did not make the remark at a public meeting, but fortunately, somebody has made it public for usthat the Conservatives' strategy is to persuade people that the health service will not and cannot work, and then to argue that people should pay for their own health care in what he calls "self-pay". We can be clear what "self-pay" is, as the BUPA price list is on the internet and bears close examination, especially for people who will not get health insurance easily and would have to pay through the nose. The good doctor also said that he wanted to reduce public spending and that the most difficult part was to argue the Conservative alternative. He is not the only one. When I appeared on last night's "Newsnight", I saw that the shadow Chancellor was in some difficulty when he was asked about the Conservative alternative. After 18 years in government and five in opposition, he still does not know what the Conservative policy on health is.