“Unbelievably cheap”. “More than a little harsh”. This was the response from Tory MPs on Thursday morning when I merely pointed out to Sky News viewers that the new education secretary Nadhim Zahawi would add to the already burgeoning private school demographic around Boris Johnson’s cabinet table.
As someone who grew up on a council estate, in a single parent family, on free school meals, I know how the odds are stacked. They’re stacked against kids growing up from backgrounds like mine. And what happens when there’s no voice in the room standing up for children growing up in poverty?
Well, this happens: targets to end child poverty in this country are scrapped, along with the national child poverty strategy. In its place: literally nothing. And the result? The number of children growing up in poverty soars – and will do again next week when the Tories remove £20 a week in support for working families on the breadline by scrapping the Universal Credit uplift. Under the Tories, the cost to the country goes up and up. Both social and economic.
Following on from two previous studies on the financial cost of child poverty to Britain – first for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation in 2008, and then for the Child Poverty Action Group in 2013 – I commissioned Professor Donald Hirsch of Loughborough University to update his research to provide an assessment for 2021. His independent findings are unsurprising. Since the 2013 study, the cost of child poverty has increased from £30bn to £38bn. Which, as anyone with a basic grasp of economics will tell you, is a huge real term rise.
And it gets worse. Because the data analysed in the research (the latest available dataset) predates the introduction of Boris Johnson’s 10% National Insurance tax hike and the withdrawal of support through Universal Credit. Indeed, Professor Hirsch acknowledges in his report that these findings are a “cautious estimate”, with the real figure likely to be even higher.
Keir Starmer has said that reducing child poverty will be a national priority on his watch. And that is why we have announced that a future Labour government would replace Tory indifference with Labour leadership. That would begin with the creation of a Child Poverty Reduction Unit in Number 10, at the heart of government.
The Child Poverty Reduction Unit will replicate the success of the Social Exclusion Unit that helped to deliver cross-governmental strategy and leadership to deal with social exclusion in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when Labour almost eliminated rough sleeping and halved teenage pregnancies.
Politics is about choices. This week, Boris Johnson proceeds with his plan to take £1,040 a year off hard-pressed families – while Labour looks forward with plans to reverse the rise in child poverty under the Tories.