Tackling child poverty is a priority for this Government. I proudly stood on a manifesto that pledged to continue efforts through the tax and benefits system to reduce poverty, including child poverty.
I firmly believe that children should grow up in an environment with no limits to their potential and I am pleased the Government’s Plan for Jobs is helping people to make the most of their talents and get into work. With unemployment falling to 4.5 per cent this month and a record numbers of job vacancies opening up, more children will grow up in working households. We know that the chances of a child growing up in poverty are substantially reduced where both parents work, which is why employment is integral to this Government’s approach to tackling poverty.
Our robust welfare safety net supports people on low incomes, with £111 billion invested in welfare support for people of working age in 2021/22. We recognise that some people continue to require extra support, which is why we have introduced a £421 million Household Support Fund to help vulnerable people in England with essential household costs over the winter as the economy recovers. The Barnett Formula will apply in the usual way, with the devolved administrations receiving almost £80 million (£41m for the Scottish Government, £25m for the Welsh Government and £14m for the NI Executive), for a total of £500 million.
I am glad to see unemployment falling to 4.5 per cent and a record numbers of job vacancies opening up. These will help drive parental employment which we know substantially reduces the risks of child poverty.
Poverty is a complex subject and there are different ways to measure it. I understand from my colleagues at the DWP that Government tracks and monitors many different aspects of poverty, including our four statutory measures of relative income, absolute income, combined low income and material deprivation and persistent poverty. We also assess poverty’s root causes and long-term impacts.
Wide-ranging support was made available for children and families at the height of the pandemic. For instance, the Covid Local Support Grant has provided local authorities in England with funding to support vulnerable households with essential costs during the pandemic. From December 2020 until September 2021, the total value of support provided stood at £429.1 million.
Furthermore, at the start of the pandemic, extraordinary measures were put in place to help vulnerable children, including extending free school meals when schools were partially closed.
While there has been considerable coverage of what Parliament did not agree, there has been less attention to what it did agree and what I supported.
MPs backed the existing emergency package of support measures for families which is worth billions on top of Free School Meals. Parliament also endorsed ongoing activities to help the most vulnerable children in society.
However, the old income-based child poverty measures, introduced in the Child Poverty Act 2010, did not address the root causes of poverty. That is why the Welfare Reform and Work Act repealed the 2010 measures and introduced new life chances measures of worklessness and educational attainment. Annual reporting on these new measures will ensure action is focussed in the areas that the evidence shows are most important for children’s life chances.
Setting targets based on relative income does not encourage policymakers to address the underlying causes of poverty. It led the previous Government to simply spend more and more money on income transfers to lift people just over the poverty threshold, without doing anything about why those people were in poverty in the first place. The relative income measures showed the number of children in relative poverty falling during the last recession because of falling median incomes, but of course in reality children were not better off at all.
Ministers have committed to continuing to publish official data annually on low incomes in the Households Below Average Income statistics. These figures include measures of both relative and absolute low income, and will be there for all to see.
I am also proud of the measures to ensure children are offered nutritious meals to help improve their health and development. Universal infant free school meals are an excellent way of ensuring children receive a nutritious meal during the day. This not only boosts educational achievement, especially for children from disadvantaged backgrounds, but also saves hard-working families hundreds of pounds a year. Many children from disadvantaged backgrounds are entitled to receive free school meals throughout their full-time education.
In addition, the Soft Drinks Industry Levy raised £336 million in the 2019-2020 financial year, and provision results for this financial year are £143 million. This money will go towards doubling the Primary Sports Premium, the creation of a Healthy Pupils Capital Fund to help schools upgrade their sports facilities, give children access to top quality PE equipment, and give a funding boost for healthy school breakfast clubs.
Ministers have made clear that the importance of the family is paramount. I agree, which is why I am glad the “family test” has been formalised as part of the impact assessment for all domestic policies, meaning the Government is always thinking about the impact of its actions on families. Additionally, I am proud that the Marriage Allowance recognises marriage in the tax system and means families up and down the country can get a little bit of extra support and financial security.
The level of support for childcare costs within UC has increased from 70 per cent to 85 per cent. This support is available to lone parents who are in paid work regardless of the number of hours they work. This helps ensure families with children are not disadvantaged when seeking work or looking to progress in their career, perhaps by taking on more hours. This is part of a wider package of increased childcare provision. This includes an extra 15 hours of free childcare available to working parents of 3- and 4-year-olds since September 2017, and the gradual introduction of Tax-Free Childcare for working parents of children aged up to 12 and disabled children aged up to 17.
Finally, I very much welcome the publication of the first part of the National Food Strategy. I have read with interest the recommendations made in the report, in particular those concerning nutrition for disadvantaged families and children and I am pleased that key recommendations made in the Strategy are being implemented.