Household Support Fund: Children’s Bed Poverty

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Thursday 21st March 2024

(2 months, 3 weeks ago)

Lords Chamber
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Lord Bishop of Manchester Portrait The Lord Bishop of Manchester
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To ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the impact of the Household Support Fund on children’s bed poverty.

Viscount Younger of Leckie Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Work and Pensions (Viscount Younger of Leckie) (Con)
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My Lords, an evaluation of the current household support fund scheme is under way to better understand the impact of the funding. In the Spring Budget, the Chancellor announced an extension to the household support fund in England for a further six months, meaning that the Government will ensure that targeted support is available for those facing the most challenging financial circumstances as inflation falls. Subject to local decisions, this funding may be used to purchase beds and other household essentials for those in need.

Lord Bishop of Manchester Portrait The Lord Bishop of Manchester
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I thank the Minister for that Answer, and indeed for the fact that the Government extended the household support fund for another six months. But this morning the Government’s latest statistics on child poverty have been published: 4.3 million children are now growing up in poverty. That is an increase of 100,000 since figures were last published, equivalent to the population of a town the size of Eastbourne. With the household support fund due to end again in September, will the Government use these next six months to carefully consider a longer-term strategy than funding settlements for local crisis support, which is a lifeline for children and their families?

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Viscount Younger of Leckie Portrait Viscount Younger of Leckie (Con)
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The Government have kept the household support fund under review, as with all such schemes. Given the changing circumstances, including falling inflation, it was important to consider this in the round as part of the Spring Budget. The right reverend Prelate will know that this is now the fifth household support fund scheme and, following their experience of previous schemes, we know that local authorities and their partners are well placed to deliver support to those in need in particular areas.

Baroness Ritchie of Downpatrick Portrait Baroness Ritchie of Downpatrick (Lab)
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My Lords, the Work and Pensions Select Committee in the other place has just published a report into benefit levels, clearly carried out on the basis of the evidence submitted, which showed that claimants are often not able to afford daily living costs and extra costs associated with having a health condition or disability. In view of those findings, will the Minister talk with his ministerial colleagues in the DWP and ensure a review of benefits and welfare based on the essential principle of need, which includes the operating of benefits commensurate with that level of need in our wider community, including the household support fund?

Viscount Younger of Leckie Portrait Viscount Younger of Leckie (Con)
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Of course I will take that point back, but the noble Baroness will be aware that much thought and work is going into this area. In terms of targeted support locally, she will know that the Government have delivered a balanced package of funding through the local government finance settlement for this coming year, 2024-25, which makes available up to £64.7 billion for local authorities in England to target in the right place. I reassure her that this targets the deprived areas of England, particularly the upper decile of the index of multiple deprivation, and they will receive 18% more per dwelling in available resource than the least deprived areas.

Lord Young of Cookham Portrait Lord Young of Cookham (Con)
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My Lords, I very much welcome the Government’s decision to extend the household support fund for a further six months, but further to the right reverend Prelate’s supplementary question, I ask: what steps can my noble friend take to ensure a smooth transition, particularly for families with children, when the scheme comes to an end on 30 September—which may be a sensitive time in the political calendar?

Viscount Younger of Leckie Portrait Viscount Younger of Leckie (Con)
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I am well aware of the sensitivities if decisions are made for that particular time. We will have to wait and see. But as inflation falls, as in the good news yesterday with the fall to 3.4%, and with evidence of some price falls and, as the Prime Minister said yesterday, some evidence of some green shoots, notably with energy prices coming down as well, the Government will want to take careful stock over the next few months. Of course, any decision on the future of the household support fund after 30 September will be a matter for the Chancellor when he deems the timing to be right.

Lord Palmer of Childs Hill Portrait Lord Palmer of Childs Hill (LD)
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My Lords, it is vital that the household support fund continues, but the sad reality of children’s bed poverty is that it stems from systemic problems with our benefit system, which keeps people in deep poverty. Does the Minister agree that the most efficient and effective means of reducing child poverty is to lift the two-child limit? It is not just the right thing to do to end hardship now but the best route in which to end the cycle of poverty for future generations.

Viscount Younger of Leckie Portrait Viscount Younger of Leckie (Con)
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We are very alert to the issue of child poverty. Tackling child poverty is incredibly important, and we have set out a clear and sustainable approach based on evidence of the important role that parental employment plays in reducing the risk of child poverty. But it is more than that. The Question focuses on bed poverty, and it is good to mention that the household support fund can be used to ameliorate bed poverty. There are some examples that the noble Lord may know of, particularly in Bolton and Oldham.

Baroness D'Souza Portrait Baroness D'Souza (CB)
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Despite the many different kinds of benefits that the Government provide, the evidence suggests that deep poverty remains stubbornly high, at 7% of the population. Does not this suggest that what is needed is a public health approach, whereby there is a co-ordinated strategy by central, national and local government, including business, civic society and communities to develop multi-year schemes to address the damaging social consequences of such poverty?

Viscount Younger of Leckie Portrait Viscount Younger of Leckie (Con)
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The noble Baroness makes a very good point of tackling poverty not over one year but over several years. She will know that we will spend £276 billion through the welfare system in the coming year, 2024-25, including around £125 billion on people of working age and children. This is very much work in progress. Bearing in mind the point behind her question, I can say that my department, the DWP, is working ever more closely with the DHSC and other necessary departments to take a range of initiatives forward.

Baroness Thornton Portrait Baroness Thornton (Lab)
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I cannot resist making the point that the last Labour Government actually lifted hundreds of thousands of children out of poverty. It is welcome that the Government, with less than a month to go, have renewed the household support fund temporarily. The last time that noble Lords discussed this issue at Oral Questions, I asked the Minister how the Government would work on long-term strategies to fight poverty rather than short-term measures renewed only at the last minute. My question remains very much the same: given that two-thirds of children growing up in poverty live in a household where one adult works, are the Government going to work to create long-term stability and security for families, including those experiencing in-work poverty?

Viscount Younger of Leckie Portrait Viscount Younger of Leckie (Con)
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Again, the noble Baroness has made a good point about looking beyond a year and taking a long-term view. More than 26 million awards of support were made between October 2021 and March 2023 across the first of the household support fund schemes. I reassure her that the largest category of spend has been on food support, including support during school holidays, targeted particularly at children who receive free school meals in term time. The focus on children is incredibly important and should be continued.

Baroness Buscombe Portrait Baroness Buscombe (Con)
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My Lords, I pay tribute to my noble friend and his department for all they are doing in terms of a long-term strategy. Given that we are about to pay out something like £290 billion in that one department this year, which is entirely unsustainable if the Government are to support defence, our health service and everything else as well, surely the best way in which to take people out of poverty is to help them into work. That is something that the department is focused on. The opposite party for years has preferred to keep people trapped in poverty. Am I not right that he is doing the right thing?

Viscount Younger of Leckie Portrait Viscount Younger of Leckie (Con)
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My noble friend is absolutely right. The House will know—and I shall say this again—that this is one of the ways forward. The most important thing is for people to be in work. She will know, for example, that we have brought the figure down for workless households very substantially since 2009-10.

Lord Bird Portrait Lord Bird (CB)
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With eight different government departments dealing with poverty, is not it time that we actually co-ordinated our dismantling of poverty by bringing in a government department that deals exclusively with poverty prevention?

Viscount Younger of Leckie Portrait Viscount Younger of Leckie (Con)
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I am very aware of the noble Lord’s interest in this area. I recall the debate that he led on about three weeks ago, which I was involved in. I have very much taken note of his view. We do not agree that there needs to be such a high level of focus on poverty. Having said all that, I think that he is aware of the huge number of initiatives that we are taking, particularly cross-government, in tackling poverty, particularly child poverty.