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Bishop’s amendment means Ministers must think again

29 January 2016

PA

Scrutiny: the Houses of Parliament at twilight, as Lords debated the Bill, on Monday afternoon

Scrutiny: the Houses of Parliament at twilight, as Lords debated the Bill, on Monday afternoon

AN amendment to the Government’s Welfare Reform and Work Bill proposed by the Bishop of Durham, the Rt Revd Paul Butler, has forced ministers to think again on measuring child poverty.

Peers in the House of Lords backed Bishop Butler’s amendment, which retained income-based targets on child poverty, by 290 to 198 on Monday. The targets, established by the last Labour government, committed the UK to eradicating child poverty by 2020.

Both the target, and how it was measured — a child is considered to be in poverty if his or her household income is below 60 per cent of the average UK income — had been scrapped by MPs as part of the Welfare Bill, but after the vote in the House of Lords they will now have to reconsider.

Bishop Butler said that measuring poverty by income had to continue. “Financial poverty is a crucial matter that must be recognised and reported on adequately,” he told peers.

“This amendment does not seek to reassert the primacy of the existing child-poverty measures. It simply requires that income-based measures of poverty be reported on alongside, and on a level footing with, other life-chance indicators, such as worklessness and educational attainment, in order to acknowledge the significance of family income for children’s well-being and future prospects.”

The Welfare Minister, Lord Freud, said that the Government opposed measuring poverty by income, because it was “indirect and imperfect”.

“Having less money than someone else does not necessarily mean an individual is in poverty,” he argued. So-called “life chances” indicators were a better way to keep track of poverty.

Sam Royston, the chairman of the End Child Poverty Coalition and policy director at the Children’s Society, said: “By seeking to abandon commitments to report on, and tackle, the number of children living in families on low incomes, the Government seemed to think it could make child poverty magically disappear. Income is at the heart of child poverty, and the House of Lords has acknowledged that today.”

Given that two-thirds of the 3.7 million children living in poverty had at least one parent in work, it was vital that the Government understood that there was more to the problem than unemployment and worklessness, the Coalition said in a statement. The chief executive of the Child Poverty Action Group, Alison Garnham, said that the Government had got itself in a “mess” over the issue. “The Lords is on the side of the experts and the public here.

“MPs now have a chance to demonstrate their commitment to tackling child poverty by holding on to the Lords amendment when the Bill comes back to them.”

A separate amendment to require the Government to report annually on the health and well-being of children was lost in the House of Lords. In a statement, the Revd Paul Nicolson, a retired Church of England priest who leads the pressure group Taxpayers Against Poverty, criticised Labour peers for abstaining on the amendment, which five bishops voted for.

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