End child poverty now – or the puppy gets it …
Chancellor, we all know how fond you are of puppies. This one, for instance. Spot’s such a cute bundles of helplessness, who couldn’t adore him? But if your next Budget doesn’t deliver for children in poverty, Spot certainly won’t be wagging his tail any more …
OK, it isn’t going to happen.
When Alastair Darling starts his speech to Congress I’m not going to leap onto the stage, holding the Andrex puppy hostage.
I guess I just don’t have what it takes to be a proper terrorist.
But I do know that I care about child poverty, more than anything else in politics; care enough to get obsessed.
What makes you a man or woman of the Left? There are plenty of causes – hating bigotry, loving equality, supporting people who are poor and weak but still fight back – but underneath them all, there’s something about not being able to bear a world that unfairly denies people chances and wanting a future where everyone can flourish.
Francoise Sagan had a good way of putting it: when they see an injustice, people of the Left say it is intolerable, those of the Right say it is inevitable.
In my lifetime nothing in domestic politics has seemed as unfair as the increase in child poverty under the Tories. In1979, 1.7 million children were poor; by 1998 this figure had risen to 4.2 million. (Eradicating Child Poverty in Britain, Mike Brewer and Paul Gregg, IFS, 2001, p 5)
No one can say that children should be blamed for their own poverty, but they certainly pay the costs:
- Poor families have unhealthier children,
- These children do worse at school (even when they started off with higher intelligence than children who aren’t poor),
- When they leave school they are less likely to get jobs,
- Those who do tend to get lower-paid, lower-status ones,
- When they retire they are entitled to lower pensions,
- And they die at an earlier age.
That’s why I’m working for End Child Poverty’s Keep the Promise campaign, working harder than I’ve ever worked on any campaign before.
Whatever criticisms you care to make about the Government, one policy stands out: the promise to halve the number of children in poverty by 2010, and to end child poverty altogether by 2020. Every trades unionist I know is inspired and enthusiastic about this goal.
Of course, it’s a tough target, but the Government has already achieved a lot. The number of children in poverty has been brought down by half a million, and successive Budgets have found the resources to carry this work further even when money has been very tight.
But to hit the 2010 target more than a million extra children have to be lifted out of poverty, and its clear that the existing policies won’t do that. It will take about £3 billion extra in benefits and tax credits for children.
It’s expensive, but it is about keeping the Government’s promise to children in poverty. A promise that has kept thousands supporting the Government – though Polly Toynbee had to issue them with clothes pegs for their noses!
The next Budget will be crucial. If the Government doesn’t do enough in the 2009 Budget it will miss the 2010 target and the political consequences of that would be devastating. Maintaining the self-confidence to stay the course would be tougher, persuading the electorate it is a goal worth supporting would become much harder. And if we get a Conservative Government in a couple of years time, this failure would provide the perfect political cover for dropping their current policy of willing the end of ending child poverty but making no promises about the means.
So, now is the time to stiffen the sinews and summon up the blood, because only a brave and committed Government is going to find the money that’s needed.
As tax revenues are decimated and opinion poll ratings worsen it would be all too easy to abandon this commitment – which is why it is really important to show that this policy has lots of popular support.
We all have an opportunity to show that we care: End Child Poverty’s Keep the Promise event in Trafalgar Square on Saturday 4 October. For two hours (1 – 3) we’ll all have a chance to show that we care about child poverty, a chance to set the policy agenda for the next year.
I’ve got to admit that, for me, this time it’s personal.
I’m 52 years old. If the Tories win the next election and stay in for as long as they did last time, I’ll be retired before there’s another Government fully committed to ending child poverty. And if it takes as long for that Government to achieve anything as it has done this time, I may well not live to see it happen.
It isn’t just me. Think of all your efforts – doing your back in leafleting, boring meetings, rude comments on the doorstep, hours spent thinking up new ways to describe old ideas – and nothing to show for it.
That’s why I fantasise about taking over Congress with an Armalite in one hand and a puppy in the other.
But in the real world I put in an extra hour organising for 4 October.