The retreat from Compassionate Conservatism is well and truly under way. David Cameron was just a year into his leadership when he decided to embrace the great cause of eradicating child poverty. It was, he said; “an economic waste and a moral disgrace.”
Now, his government has decided that the best way to tackle the problem is to run away from it.
When Labour came to office in 1997, we inherited some of the worst rates of child poverty anywhere in the developed world. During the Conservative’s last government, the rate had child poverty had doubled.
That is why we set about with such vigour introducing new programmes to get parents back to work, introducing tax credits to make sure work actually paid, raising child benefit, and yes, widening provision of free school meals. As Churchill once said, we believed that there are few better investments a country can make than putting milk into babies.
Why did we do this? Because we believed that one of the greatest, richest nations on earth could not be scarred by such an evil. And because we believed that a parent’s love – and ambition – for their children and their family is the absolute bed rock of a good society.
Labour may not have halved the incredible rate of child poverty we inherited by 2010 – the middle of the worst economic crash since the Great Depression. But we lifted almost a million children out of relative poverty. Between 1998/99 and 2009/10, the number of children living in absolute poverty fell by 2 million. On any measure that is progress.
Once upon a time the Tories said they liked this kind of thing. That is why in 2006, David Cameron said; ‘the Conservative Party recognises, will measure and will act on relative poverty.”
No more. Today Iain Duncan Smith is in full-scale retreat. Suddenly the government want to move the goal posts.
And we know why. The government’s plan for welfare reform is a disaster.
So many people – parents included – have been put on the dole that in some communities – the poorest communities – there are nearly 50 people chasing every job. Female unemployment is now at a record high.
Cuts to tax credits mean that hundreds of thousands of families are now better off on benefits – trapping them in poverty.
And the Universal Credit scheme, which promised so much, is now subject to emergency delays and locks in cuts to childcare that mean many parents simply cannot afford to go out to work. I suspect the government knows that Universal Credit will not actually increase the number of hours parents can work, which is why ministers are refusing to publish the business case.
The IFS predicts 400,000 children will fall into relative poverty over the course of the parliament. And Oxfam say today, this government has created a perfect storm leaving thousands of families at sea.
Let me be blunt. You can add as many bells and whistles as you like to your measure of child poverty. But you cannot escape the bottom line. You cannot camouflage a simple test which is this. Are too many parents being forced to raise their families on a level of income that is too far below the level enjoyed by the rest of society?
It’s a measure accepted across the developed world and Europe. We should accept it in Britain.
The truth is Iain Duncan Smith isn’t just out of touch, he’s in la la land. He tells hard-pressed families to simply get a new job. What planet is he on? There are five people chasing every vacancy. He has become the Marie Antoinette of British politics. While parents struggle to juggle to bills, he says; ‘let them eat cake’.
Liam Byrne MP is the shadow welfare secretary