Official Report (Hansard)

Session: 2011/2012

Date: 18 February 2009

Members present for all or part of the proceedings:

Mr Danny Kennedy (Chairperson)
Mr Tom Elliott
Mrs Dolores Kelly
Mr Ian McCrea
Mr Francie Molloy
Mr Jimmy Spratt

Witnesses:

Ms Patricia Carey )
Mr Alan McClelland ) Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister
Mr Michael Pollock )

The Chairperson (Mr Kennedy):

I welcome Michael Pollock, Patricia Carey and Alan McClelland, who will brief the Committee on the Child Poverty Bill. You can provide an overview, after which members will ask questions.

Ms Patricia Carey (Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister):

Given the Committee’s interest in the subject and the fact that it has already published a report into child poverty in Northern Ireland, we are grateful for the opportunity to discuss the proposed legislation.

The Committee will be aware that the UK Government have issued a UK-wide consultation document on child poverty that seeks to put its objectives for eradicating child poverty by 2020 into legislation. Several measures might contribute to achieving that target, such as reducing the proportion of children in relative low income by between 5% and 10% by 2020, and reducing the proportion of children in material deprivation combined with low income to approaching zero by 2020. Furthermore, we aim to make continued progress on persistent poverty to ensure that a child who experiences poverty only does so in the short term.

As officials in a devolved Administration, we have contacted our colleagues in the three other Administrations. That has been a speedy process, and we are midway through a consultation period, which is due to end by 11 March. Ministers and the Executive have been asked to comment on the consultation document. The Committee can decide how to respond, but if members want us to relay comments directly to our colleagues in the other Administrations, or as a formal part of the consultation process, we are happy to do so.

As officials, we welcome any measure that raises the profile of child poverty, focuses minds on the demanding Government targets in that area and maintains momentum on tackling the issues that cause child poverty. Members will also be aware that ‘Ending Child Poverty: Making it Happen’, which is the consultation document issued by the child poverty unit in GB, is available on the Internet.

I will give members some background on where we are here with regard to child poverty and the wider poverty landscape. You will be aware that the Executive have formally adopted the broad architecture and principles of Lifetime Opportunities as its overarching strategy for tackling poverty and social inclusion in Northern Ireland. Of course, child poverty is an important aspect of that work. In parallel to that, a ministerial subcommittee on children and young people has established a number of subgroups, one of which is specifically considering at child poverty, with the objective of ensuring a comprehensive and cohesive approach in taking all the issues forward.

We are working with Ministers to convene the first meeting of the Executive subcommittee on poverty and social inclusion, and we hope that that will happen in the very near future. Matters concerning the most appropriate monitoring and reporting framework for poverty-related issues, including child poverty, will be high on the agenda for the first meeting. Clearly, that will have implications for how different parties may wish to respond to the consultation document. Once the legislation has been agreed, one issue will be how we monitor and what way we are required to report to UK Government in general, or to the Assembly, if that is a feature of consideration.

Members will be aware that the consultation document focuses on the local authority structure for England when it looks at local structures. That highlights the fact that much of the work being done centrally, and much of the progress that can be made across the UK, has been done by the separate Administrations. Although each of the devolved Administrations is working separately, there are some cross-cutting issues that are not devolved, and that creates an issue on how to tackle child poverty. It is not yet clear whether the legislation will focus entirely on those matters that are not devolved and that are left entirely for the Westminster Government, or whether there may be elements of that that will have a direct impact on devolved Administrations. The document suggests that each Administration should have a strategy. We already have an anti-poverty strategy here. There is also an issue around monitoring and reporting back. Those are the kind of issues that this Administration and the Committee may have views on, given that devolved responsibility for many of those matters rests here.

There is nothing else what I wish to add. However, I am happy to take members’ views, comments and questions. I should have introduced the other members of the team. Alan McClelland is a statistician and researcher, and he will be able to answer any questions on measuring child poverty and whether it is possible to do the same for Northern Ireland as for the rest of the UK and England in particular, given the size of the population here. Michael Pollock is head of the central anti-poverty unit in the equality directorate, with direct responsibility for taking forward the anti-poverty strategy.

The Chairperson:

Thank you very much. Will the recommendations in the legislation be followed by available finance to carry out those measures? Are you yet in a position to compare and contrast what will apply to the devolved Administrations and how they might have to finance those measures? Will Westminster create terms and conditions that we will not be able to afford without the money? Will they apply terms and conditions that are more applicable to other regions of the United Kingdom than Northern Ireland?

Mr Michael Pollock (Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister):

Press releases were issued when the consultation was launched, and there was a definite signal that there would not be any additional resources and that resources would be constrained to the ordinary budgetary process. Therefore, if there were a requirement to skew resources, that would have to be done as part of the comprehensive spending review through the normal budgetary process, and it would cascade to the level of the Northern Ireland block grant.

The Chairperson:

Is there any sense of new money coming through to fund the proposals?

Mr Pollock:

No, there is not.

Ms Carey:

You also asked about the devolved Administrations and those matters that have not been devolved. As Michael said, no new money is envisaged. One issue that might arise is whether it is possible for us even to measure and report on some of the proposed new measures.

Mr Alan McClelland (Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister):

We can replicate all the measures proposed in the consultation paper in Northern Ireland, bar the one on persistent child poverty. After discussion with colleagues in GB, our understanding is that the reporting mechanism for the Bill will be UK-wide; there will be no requirement for devolved Administrations, or local authorities in England, for example, to report separately. On that basis, we can still track our progress against the measures of relative low income, and combined low income and material deprivation.

Ms Carey:

Another potential issue is that a range of measures is required to eradicate child poverty. As some of those relate to matters that are not devolved, they are the responsibility of Westminster. Therefore, it is appropriate that the targets for what we can achieve are set on a UK-wide basis. We can have some influence on the overall picture by doing as much as we can in a devolved setting. However, we do not have control over those measures that are Westminster’s responsibility and that may be required to achieve the targets.

Those issues are not yet finalised. Our colleagues in Westminster tell us that, given our different responsibilities here, because some matters are excepted or reserved, part of the consultation process should be an examination of those issues to determine how to progress.

The Chairperson:

One of the Committee’s findings from its inquiry into child poverty in Northern Ireland is that it can never be truly eradicated; depending on how it is measured, it might be eliminated or reduced.

Mr Pollock:

That is recognised in the consultation document.

The Chairperson:

Is that issue being addressed?

Mr Pollock:

It is being addressed, and some proposals have been made, but the definition of “eradication” will be enshrined in the final legislation. Previously, there had been talk about “best in Europe”, and the document contains some European comparators, but that is all; no measurement, particularly in the context of material deprivation, has yet been nailed down. Part of the process that we are going through with our researchers, the Lifetime Opportunities strategy and Ministers is trying to get the best handle on how to measure, monitor and report progress against poverty targets, particularly child poverty targets. The comfort to be taken from the consultation document is that the rest of the UK is no further advanced in solving that riddle.

Mrs D Kelly:

Given the 18-month delay in implementing Lifetime Opportunities, and its bad-mouthing during that period, I am a bit confused that the Executive now accept that as their strategy.

Patricia, in your introduction, you said that the Executive now broadly accepted the architecture and some of the framework. However, you did not commit to the Executive fully accepting the strategy and any action plans that may arise from it. Given that there are a number of other factors that have an impact, not least the economic downturn, I have no idea what the position is in relation to measurement. I am glad that a statistician is present, who may be able to answer some of those questions.

In the consultation document, the Westminster Government are able to clearly set out the three areas of deprivation — absolute, relative and material. I do not see that clarity yet from OFMDFM, unless I have missed it. Are there agreed definitions across the regional assemblies and Westminster?

What assessment will there be of the impact of impending welfare reform legislation, not only on the economic downturn but on welfare reform in general? Research was commissioned by our own staff into the integrated children’s legislation that was enacted in England and Wales — the Children Act 2004. I am not sure whether it was introduced in Scotland or whether some slightly different legislation was introduced there. What are the advantages or disadvantages of that legislation? Has any thought been given to it? I broadly welcome the intention of the policy — to set in legislation the requirement for Governments to review every three years and to report progress.

Ms Carey:

I will reply to some of the general points, and I will ask Alan to reply to some of the points in relation to measures. In relation to Lifetime Opportunities, I do not think that the Executive’s adopting the broad architecture in any way means that there is any difficulty with the strategy itself. It was published under a previous Administration, and a great deal of work and consultation was carried out to formulate a complete strategy. The document has been adopted in relation to what the strategy seeks to achieve, but the reason that the architecture has been adopted is that it gives scope for the current Executive and various Committees to shape what now happens to the action plans. This Committee is obviously a key part of that process.

The broad architecture has been adopted, which gives the Department the licence to now move ahead to try to achieve some of the objectives. I am not absolutely sure what the position is with the Children Act 2004, although I think that it has been adopted in England; I am not sure about Wales, and I do not think that Scotland has a similar measure. I will certainly ascertain the position and report back.

The legislation has been brought forward quite quickly, and the Prime Minister has placed a particular emphasis on it. It is hoped that the legislation will be introduced by Easter; our minds are focused on setting targets and eliminating child poverty. Through the development of the Lifetime Opportunities strategy and the work that has been carried out by OFMDFM on child poverty and poverty generally, those are the issues that we have been grappling with, and the Department will come to a conclusion on the best way to measure and eliminate child poverty.

Mr McClelland:

The intention is to bring proposals to Ministers on how the Lifetime Opportunities strategy is measured in the round, through the targets and indicators of progress set against it, which cover not only children but the entire life cycle.

Poverty can be measured on the same basis as the measurement for the UK as a whole, using measurements of relative poverty, absolute poverty and mixed-income and material deprivation measures. For example, there was a reduction of around 29% in the number of children in poverty in Northern Ireland between 1998-99 and 2006-07, compared with a 15% reduction in the UK as a whole. When using the absolute poverty measure, there has been a 61% reduction over that time period, compared with a 50% reduction in the UK as a whole.

The mixed income and material deprivation measure has been around only for three years, so it is too early to judge; however, indications are that we are doing slightly better than the UK as a whole. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation published a paper today, which we have not had time to read in detail; however, one interesting point that arises from its economic modelling is that the economic downturn, depending on the pattern of the recession and where it hits, may not increase child poverty. It may worsen the situation of those children and their families currently living in poverty; however, we will read that paper in more detail. Our intention is to bring forward proposals that enable the Lifetime Opportunities strategy to be monitored, and for indicators of progress to be set.

Mr Pollock:

That is right. There was never any question about adopting Lifetime Opportunities; however, in the Preparation for Government Committee, there was some disquiet about the lack of short- to medium-term targets. Rather, the focus was on eliminating child poverty by 2020, and that long-term target was included in the Programme for Government. That is what we have been working on with Ministers in order to bring it to this stage.

Mrs D Kelly:

What is the timescale for producing that piece of work? Given the differential in the ability and power of local authorities in Northern Ireland, what is being proposed will not be implemented on a like-for-like basis. Even with the increase in powers for local councils under the review of public administration, it will not be like for like. I know that it is early days, but how will that be managed?

Ms Carey:

You are absolutely right, which is why the consultation document focuses on what happens at a local level in local authorities. In England, central Government can ask their local authorities to do certain things; however, we do not have that structure here. The review of public administration and the devolution of responsibilities to local authorities will have an impact; however, that is some time away. In the meantime, we are proceeding on the basis that central Government have the powers and responsibilities that they currently have.

What can we do here? The fact that central Government have the power and the responsibility will mean that it is more within the Executive’s control to decide what happens and to be able to take things forward, whereas in England, Westminster can require local authorities to do certain things. Central Government in England must then ensure that those things are done, report back and monitor them in an arm’s-length manner. That system has certain advantages; however, it means that some actions are removed from Government and, arguably, they will not have the same control.

We do not have that situation here; therefore, we will have to think about what will have to happen in order to achieve some of the things that have been achieved through local authorities in England. This consultation process is trying to get to the bottom of what that means for the different Administrations, although the set-up for Wales and Scotland is different again. There is a very short time period for the consultation document; however, I think that the Ministers involved at Westminster are hoping that some of that can be resolved through the responses received. It will be for this Administration to then think about what needs to be done at a local level to suit this country.

We are working on the timescale; the Lifetime Opportunities strategy has just been adopted, so we are considering how to develop the action plans. The ministerial groups and subcommittees are in place, and it is to be hoped that those new bodies will meet soon, and we can move forward. I cannot give a definite timescale, but once we have a proposal worked up, we will give that to the Committee.

Mr Elliott:

Thank you for the presentation; I am sorry that I missed the start of it.

I feel that we are not really getting anywhere at the moment with child poverty. We have set these targets, and there is now a new target to eliminate severe child poverty by 2012. We have still not defined “severe” child poverty. We seem to have set targets, but we have no definition of what we are going to develop.

It has been over a year since those targets were set in the Programme for Government. Will you tell me what progress has been made? We are only one year away from the next target — to reduce child poverty by 50% by 2010 — so we are already halfway there. Let us be blunt: do you believe, in your heart, that we are going to achieve any of these targets?

Ms Carey:

The reason that the Prime Minister is planning to enshrine the targets in legislation is to assist in the process and to focus people on achieving it. Some of the gains that have been made in eliminating poverty and child poverty have been negated by the current economic downturn. It is always difficult to get to a stage where you can say absolutely that poverty or child poverty has been eliminated.

There is a mixed-measure attempt to address that, because some of the earlier comments reflect the fact that we cannot ever eliminate poverty. In cases of relative poverty, some people will always be worse off than others. It is about setting a standard below which it is not acceptable for people to live, or to have a gap that is greater than that which exists already. It is very difficult.

So much to do with the elimination of poverty and child poverty is connected to people being in work, receiving a regular income and having a standard of living that we do not have direct control over in the way in which we do have control over other issues.

Mr Elliott:

We have set targets. I know that some of them are out of our control, but we must have realised that when they were being set. I am very demoralised in witnessing what progress has been made. I am trying to be reflective and honest.

Ms Carey:

Alan mentioned earlier that there has been some progress on some of the targets that can be measured. It is not as if, for some people, the situation has not improved. Some children have been lifted out of poverty, and some people have been lifted out of poverty. Whether that has happened as much as had originally been envisaged, we do not know, and we will not know until the measures are made in 2010 and 2020.

There is a real commitment from the UK Government — and I am sure that it is matched by the devolved Administrations — to focus on the issue now. The fact that it has been enshrined in legislation is a real signal that it is now a top priority for Government.

Mrs D Kelly:

We were told by the junior Ministers that the target had been shifted to 2012.

Mr Elliott:

There was a new target for 2012.

Mr Pollock:

There is a target to eliminate severe child poverty by 2012. That is an advance on anything that exists in the rest of the UK. We are trying to do something about the worst cases of child poverty; some of our research colleagues are examining that. That is part of the monitoring, reporting and measurement framework that we would expect the Executive subcommittee to consider at its first meeting when it discusses the issue of poverty.

Mr Elliott:

Has the Executive subcommittee been set up yet?

Mr Pollock:

It was agreed on 15 December 2008. We still have to find a date on which to convene the first meeting.

The Chairperson:

Your overall point, Patricia, is that the Prime Minister’s focus and the introduction of the Child Poverty Bill will concentrate minds at national and local level. The point being raised by some members is that there is hardly any evidence of that.

Ms Carey:

You are quite right. We have had the 2010 and 2020 targets for some time, and we have been trying to develop Lifetime Opportunities. OFMDFM awaits agreement so that it can progress measures that other Departments cannot. Therefore, in the short term, it is difficult to measure improvement. Moreover, it is difficult to measure cause and effect.

We are working with the other Departments to identify areas in which we can make a real difference to poverty and to child poverty, using actions that are relevant to our respective responsibilities. Although we have yet to achieve the progress that was envisaged, we are, nevertheless, spurred on to do better.

Now that the Lifetime Opportunities strategy is agreed and in place, we will push forward with discussions with Departments, in which we will exhort them to identify actions that might tackle poverty and child poverty and, subsequently, to develop action plans that will chart that process through to 2010 and then up to 2020.

The Chairperson:

I hope that you appreciate that we are all on the same side in pursuit of those goals.

Ms Carey:

Absolutely.

Mr Molloy:

What actions to eradicate child poverty have the various Ministers proposed for their respective Departments, particularly with respect to parity of benefits?

Ms Carey:

I cannot really comment on that matter. Each Department’s contribution will depend on its level of influence. Obviously, the Departments that are responsible for jobs and benefits will have a greater influence on income levels, helping people into employment and keeping people out of poverty. However, given that the responsibility for most of those matters has not been devolved, emphasis will be placed on Departments to encourage people into, and to create, jobs.

Apart from the contributions of Ministers and Departments to the development of the Lifetime Opportunities strategy, when they genuinely attempted to identify actions that would make a difference, we have had no formal indications from Departments about their progress on implementing the legislation.

Mr Molloy:

Therefore, you have had no proposals from Ministers to deal with poverty. Although buzz words such as “Lifetime Opportunities” are often used, it is sometimes difficult to determine firm proposals from Ministers about what they might actually do.

As you said, there is no new money, and measures will, by and large, emanate from Westminster. Do you know how much it would cost to meet the annual targets for eradicating child poverty?

Ms Carey:

Although research that was published today puts a figure on that, I do not think that there is a Government figure for it. Alan might be able to answer that question.

Mr McClelland:

The report published today by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation suggests a figure of £4·2 billion a year, which would be paid through benefits and the tax credit system. A pro rata figure for Northern Ireland works out at £130 million a year. However, the authors of the report accept that modelling the future is pretty complicated. Consequently, their research takes a purely redistributive approach to tackling child poverty, thus calculating how much it would cost to meet the 2010 targets by putting the money through existing benefits and tax credit systems.

Mr Molloy:

Therefore, it should be easier to eradicate child poverty than to save the banks. [Laughter.]

The Chairperson:

Everybody talks in billions now.

Mr Spratt:

At the start, it was made clear that there is no additional money. Therefore, actions must be taken within existing ministerial budgets, such as those for health, education, employment, skills, social development and housing. Given that Departments’ demands are increasing dramatically and that their priorities will have to change over coming months and years — those pressures also apply nationally — this is a particularly difficult time to set any targets.

It must be terribly difficult to set targets at present, when the situation is a daily moveable feast. From an Executive point of view, the First Minister and deputy First Minister have put the current economic situation at the top of their agenda. There is a collective responsibility on all Departments and all Ministers to act; it is not just the responsibility of one Department. I do not know how targets can be set, given the way that things are going.

Mr Pollock:

That is effectively what will constitute the agenda of the Executive subcommittee on poverty and social exclusion when it meets for the first time. It will have to agree priorities and priority actions, and consider the means by which we monitor and report on action in those particular areas.

As you said, there are competing priorities. There is child poverty, rural poverty, pensioner poverty, fuel poverty — there is any God’s amount of manifestations of poverty. There will be a resource restraint on all that, and we will need collective Executive decision-making on the actions that are deemed to be priorities. The fact that child poverty is, as Patricia said, being enshrined in legislation supports the targets that we have written into our Programme for Government and gives it a more secure footing when it comes to leverage for commandeering whatever resources are available at the Executive table.

Mr Spratt:

It would be helpful if people stopped sniping from the sidelines and got on with the job.

The Chairperson:

I cannot imagine who you mean.

Mr Spratt:

You should be able to work it out.

Mrs D Kelly:

What is the penalty for not achieving those targets?

Ms Carey:

That will depend on how the legislation is shaped. If a target is set, against which the Administrations have to report and that can be met, there is no issue. If the Government set a UK-wide target that we have to feed into — while doing what we can here — that is a slightly different situation. It depends on whether targets are set and whether they must be met, as opposed to just asking us to do our very best to try to eliminate child poverty, while recognising that there will be constraints. It is not yet clear how prescriptive the legislation will be.

The Government have said that they envisage that primary and secondary legislation will be used to establish targets. One option would be to put into primary legislation the commitment to reduce the proportion of children in relatively low-income families and the requirement that targets be set. The purpose of the secondary legislation would be to determine what those targets should be. That might take account of some of the differences in the economic climate. Everything depends on what the legislation says; the situation is not as specific as that at present. The nature of any proposed sanctions or penalties has not been raised or discussed yet, but it will be a valid consideration if the elimination of child poverty is to be achieved.

The Chairperson:

Thank you very much for your attendance today and for answering our questions.

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