In 1999 Tony Blair made a big and bold commitment to eliminating child poverty within a generation. This week the government published statistics showing that the last Labour government lifted 1.1 million children out of poverty.
Earlier this week the Child Poverty Action published ‘Ending Child Poverty by 2020: Progress Made and Lessons Learned’. CPAG’s report is an important and timely document both charting the progress of the last Labour government but also forensically taking on some of the recent arguments Tory and Lib Dem ministers have been pursuing downgrading the importance of the child poverty targets. I thoroughly recommend every Labour Party member reads it.
The findings are stark – that as a result of the measures taken by the last Labour government, 900,000 children were lifted out of poverty who otherwise would not have been on the ‘before housing costs measure’. What’s more our measures ensured that an additional 900,000 did not fall into poverty. As the reports observes ‘reducing child poverty on this scale and at this pace has few if any precedents, either over time or across comparable wealthy countries.’
As fighters for social justice we can never be satisfied and are absolutely always hungry for further change, but that is surely a record of which all Labour members can be proud.
To mark the publication of the statistics this week, Iain Duncan Smith confirmed plans to shift the goal posts and instead start using less ambitious bench marks to measure levels of child poverty.
In the heady days of husky photo-shoots, David Cameron told us, the heady days of huskie photo calls David Cameron told us “poverty is relative – and those who pretend otherwise are wrong.” No doubt those concerned for the sincerity of the Tories on defeating child poverty felt reassured when Cameron continued “I believe that poverty is an economic waste and a moral disgrace. In the past, we used to think of poverty only in absolute terms – meaning straightforward material deprivation. That’s not enough. We need to think of poverty in relative terms – the fact that some people lack those things which others in society take for granted. So I want this message to go out loud and clear: the Conservative Party recognises, will measure and will act on relative poverty.”
By 2010 just to reinforce the point that the Tories were so keen to signal a shift on these issues they committed cross party support for Gordon Brown’s Child Poverty Act, committing future governments to reducing relative child poverty.
Fast forward to 2012 and the budget decisions made by the ‘quad’ of a Tory Prime Minister, a Tory Chancellor and their two Lib Dem Deputies betray the reality of the current government’s attitude towards defeating relative child poverty.
Families and children are suffering from a blizzard of cuts including restrictions on tax credits, cuts to the childcare element of the Working Tax Credit, abolition of the Child Trust Fund, abolition of the Educational Maintenance Grant, freezing of child benefit, abolition of the health in pregnancy grant to name just a few of the cuts hurting families. All taking place in the wider context of a fiscal consolidation sucking demand out of the economy, causing high unemployment levels and a double dip recession. It’s not surprising there has been such a huge squeeze on family finances recently.
These cuts are all the more depressing when considered alongside the centrepiece of George Osborne’s recent budget which handed millionaires a £40,000 tax cut and did nothing new to help defeat child poverty.
And what is happening to child poverty levels today? Save the Children reminded us in Britain we have 3.6 million children living in poverty. CPAG’s confirms that “Already the number of children living in workless families is on the increase, ‘NEET’ and youth unemployment is at record levels, the living standards of low-income families are falling as benefits and tax credits fail to keep pace with the price increases they face. The Institute for Fiscal Studies predicts that absolute poverty is already rising and relative poverty will soon rise as well.”
As a response this week Iain Duncan Smith decided to argue that the relative poverty measure is too narrow. It is certainly true that child poverty is multi dimensional and other related factors need to be taken into account but any genuine onslaught against child poverty cannot deny the importance of income levels. Quite simply Iain Duncan Smith won’t abolish child poverty if he refuses to take account of income levels.
We have always recognised that there are many reasons why families fall into poverty or why families remain in poverty. We’ve always known that the policy response would have to be multi-faceted. That’s why I would argue that the introduction of Sure Start Children’s Centres was one of the most important policies of the last Labour government. This week I will be visiting a brilliant Sure Start centre in my constituency to read to local children as part of BookStart week. Again Bookstart is another initiative fully deserving our continued support as one of the tools at our disposal to give children a better start in life. It would be an absolute tragedy if Michael Gove doesn’t secure its funding in the future.
As we start to shift gear on our policy development work in the run up to the next general election we need to begin to think how we will continue to tackle child poverty and reverse the inevitable lost ground of the Tory-Liberal years. As campaigners we need to keep up the pressure on child poverty while offering a sense of how we will act in government. But of course we will have to be realistic about the state of the public finances we are likely to inherit given the mess George Osborne is making.
I would argue that developing a system of universal childcare is absolutely key to any future Labour government’s child poverty ambitions with the international evidence generally showing that those nations that help mums in work have lower child poverty rates. So helping women move into work is absolutely vital. Equally however, we need to recognise that being in employment is not enough while low pay features so regularly in the UK economy. For example, 58 per cent of children in poverty live in households where at least one person is working.
In the meantime we need to do all we are able to tackle child poverty in those places where we’re in power locally. For example, in Leicester we sadly have one of the highest levels of persistent child poverty in the country. That’s why our impressive Deputy Mayor Rory Palmer established the Leicester Child Poverty Commission to consider what we need to do across the city to tackle child poverty and what actions the City Council can take to do just that. We all recognise there will be limits on what can be achieved at a local government level but it’s important Labour locally is doing all that’s possible to give Leicester children the best start in life.
Jon Ashworth is the Labour MP for Leicester South @jonashworth and the Leicester Child Poverty Commission is on twitter @LeicCPC