Last week’s publication of the Government’s draft Child Poverty Strategy for 2014-17 reveals far more about the state of relations at the top of the Conservative Party than it does about the actions urgently needed to prevent the expected rise in the number of families living below the breadline.
Nearly a year after the consultation ended on the Work & Pensions Secretary, Iain Duncan Smith’s preferred new “multi-dimensional” measures, he hasn’t even been able to persuade the Chancellor this is the right approach, let alone the rest of us. Bizarrely, it was left to IDS’ Lib Dem Number Two to defend the measures in the media. And it was a good job David Laws did at least have the wrangling between his Tory colleagues to talk about, because there is very little else in the new draft strategy itself.
At Z2K, we recognise that child poverty is a more complex issue than whether your income is above or below a line set at 60 per cent of the median. But the original measures adopted when the objective of ending child poverty by 2020 was set were always much more sophisticated than this anyway. While the media always tended to focus on the 60 per cent measure, the “After Housing Costs measure” and “material deprivation” measures were equally important and subsequently became enshrined in law with the 2010 Child Poverty Act.
Ministers make a valid point in highlighting the unusual fact that the numbers of children in poverty under the 60 per cent median measure has fallen since 2010 because the incomes of others have fallen further. But these kind of statistical anomalies iron themselves out over the course of time. And too often ministers’ efforts to highlight drug and alcohol addiction or family breakdown as the key drivers of child poverty reveal a desire to airbrush income levels out of the equation.
This is most obvious in the denigration of their predecessors’ approach as “poverty plus a pound” and the wild-eyed claim that £170 billion in tax credits was wasted. There simply isn’t any truth to the suggestion that those just below the poverty-line were helped across, while those more deeply below it were left to fester without help. Of course, there is a serious debate to be had about the effectiveness of the actions taken to help the most marginalised between 1997 and 2010. But Child Tax Credits meant that every poor family enjoyed a financial lift even if it wasn’t enough to raise them above the 60 per cent line.
Z2K believes that poverty in Britain today is multi-faceted and requires an equally sophisticated policy response. But we also believe that the current child poverty measures are the best way of holding the Government to account against its stated objective of ending child poverty by 2020. It might not be a perfect measure. But it’s the best we have – and is internationally recognised to boot. A new measure now would completely undermine external pressure on ministers to raise the incomes of the poorest.
An indication of just how disastrous moving the child poverty goalposts would be can be garnered by a look at the draft strategy itself. It is simply a rehash of the Coalition’s policy agenda around worklessness and education, rather than a meaningful attempt to map out the additional interventions that will be needed to ensure the Government really will end child poverty by 2020. Worse still, the monitoring of performance against the existing measures is tucked away in an Appendix at the back of a hundred-page report.
Z2K is not remotely persuaded that this draft strategy puts sufficient focus on helping those children growing up in poverty today and we will be making that clear in our own response to the consultation. We hope others do too – especially the big children’s charities that have real influence in Downing Street if they choose to use it. In the meantime, well done to The Children’s Society and Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) for their outspoken rejection of this woeful strategy in last week’s media coverage.