If we’re honest, it’s fair to say Child Poverty Action Group never expected to agree with every aspect of the government’s child poverty strategy when it was published last year but we did expect it to be lawful. This week, in response to a judicial review brought by Child Poverty Action Group, the High Court agreed with us that the government had acted unlawfully in not constituting and taking advice from a Child Poverty Commission in the development of the strategy.
The judgment endorses our view that had the government produced a strategy with expert input from the Commission as ministers had initially promised, some of the glaring weaknesses in the current version could have been avoided. Rather than an account which centralises individual behaviour such as drug and alcohol abuse – an explanatory factor for only a very small number of families living in poverty – we might, instead, have seen a strategy that was more honest in its analysis, and that contained a more effective programme of action.
This is what we said in our witness statement to the High Court:
We believe that the lack of such input into the purported strategy of 5th April 2011 has resulted in it being flawed. For example, drug and alcohol abuse is discussed alongside other measures to reduce child poverty despite the fact that it, in fact, applies only to a small minority of poor families. The focus on families facing multiple disadvantages whilst downplaying the importance of income is similarly incoherent. The approach could have been improved if subjected to proper academic analysis. Also, a Commission could have provided the evidential basis for progress indicators or milestones that would describe the progress the Government intends to make in the period 2011-14. In the event, there were none.
Disappointingly, our second ground for challenge, that the strategy itself was unlawful because it failed to say what progress the Government expects to make in reducing the numbers of children in poverty over its lifespan, was not accepted.
We had argued that because the Child Poverty Act 2010 commits the government to a set of numerical targets, any sensible strategy would indicate the point the government would like to reach with respect to these by its end.
In our view, governments should be upfront about what difference their policies will make to child poverty numbers – if ministers know their child poverty strategy is going to increase, not reduce, poverty then they need to say so. However, the judge made clear that the content of the strategy is a matter for political judgement, and as a result he could not adjudicate on this.
We now will be writing to the government to ask that the new Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission subjects the existing strategy to its expert review as soon as it has been set up. The Commission, to be chaired by Alan Milburn, should have been set up by April 2011, we now hope that the foot-dragging will end and that it will be up and running in the autumn.
With poverty expected to rise sharply as a result of government policies, our legal challenge reinforces the need for this and future governments – aided by an independent Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission – to take an evidence-based approach to tackling poverty.