Iain Duncan Smith tears up the Child Poverty Act – and tells us he’s going to “improve” it
Well, after David Cameron prepared us for savage cuts to Child Tax Credit, lots of people expected that the government was going to change the Child Poverty Act substantially. After all, the last five years of cuts led the Institute for Fiscal Studies to forecast that, without any further changes, the number of children in poverty would be 700,000 higher in 2020 than in 2012/13 (see table A1 of this report.)
The Children’s Commissioners for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have just sent the United Nations a report saying that austerity – especially benefit cuts – have resulted in
a failure to protect the most disadvantaged children and those in especially vulnerable groups from child poverty. … Reductions to household income for poorer children as a result of tax, transfer and social security benefit changes have led to food and fuel poverty, and the sharply increased use of crisis food bank provision by families.
Last year the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission reported that the government’s child poverty strategy “falls far short of what is needed” to meet its duty under the Child Poverty Act 2010 to end child poverty by 2020 and forecast that this target would be “missed by a considerable distance”. Taking £1,690 a year away from low-income families will make that problem massively worse.
So, everyone in the campaign to end child poverty was expecting the government to do something to fudge its responsibilities, but yesterday’s announcements went much further. The government hasn’t just moved the goalposts, it’s torn them down.
The Child Poverty Act was passed with the support of all the main political parties in 2010. David Cameron did make one proviso – that he wouldn’t necessarily be bound by the 2020 target date, but he never said a word criticising these targets. And these targets are the heart of the Child Poverty Act. The say that, by 2010/21:
- Under 10 per cent of children must be living in households with an income below 60 per cent of the equivalised median – this is often called the ‘relative poverty’ target
- Under 5 per cent of children must be living in households with an income below 60 per cent of the equivalised median in 2010/11 (uprated to take account of inflation) – this is often called the ‘absolute poverty’ target
- Under 5 per cent of children must be living in households with under 70 per cent of the equivalised median and suffering from ‘material deprivation’
- Under 7 per cent of children must have lived in a household with an equivalised income of less than 60 per cent of the UK median income for at least three years over a four-year period – the ‘persistent poverty’ target.
‘Relative poverty’ is important as the headline target, but all four targets are important, because they measure different aspects of what is wrong about poverty. As the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission put it:
This really matters: lower absolute income levels for large numbers of children are not just a statistical change but one that means more children will suffer real hardship that is likely to damage their wellbeing and their future life chances. Equally, if the living standards of children and young people at the bottom do not keep in touch with those in the middle, they suffer harm as they are increasingly less able to take part in society.
Yesterday, Iain Duncan Smith defiantly repudiated these targets pledging “legislation to remove existing measures and targets in the Child Poverty Act, as well as other duties and provisions”, instead we will get reports on things like workless households. These are important, but what they have in common is that they aren’t child poverty. As others have pointed out, the government is trying to say that being poor isn’t about not having enough money.
But that isn’t the most ridiculous aspect of the government’s plans. This post is full of links, but please visit this one: the page on the government website announcing the abolition of the Child Poverty Act targets is headed “Government to strengthen child poverty measure”! I certainly couldn’t have made that one up.
What really annoys me about all this is the way this is being justified on the grounds that a relative definition of poverty is wrong. Before the 2010 election, when the Conservatives were trying to persuade us that they were no longer the nasty party, they went to great lengths to tell us that they “got” relative poverty now. As David Cameron said in his 2006 Scarman lecture:
We need to think of poverty in relative terms – the fact that some people lack those things which others in society take for granted.
In his 2009 Hugo Young lecture he quoted The Spirit Level on inequality:
Research by Richard Wilkinson and Katie Pickett, in The Spirit Level, has shown that among the richest countries, it’s the more unequal ones that do worse according to almost every quality of life indicator … We should focus on closing the gap between the bottom and the middle … because focusing on those who do not have the chance of a good life is the most important thing to do.
(Don’t try finding these speeches on the Conservative website, they’ve disappeared.)
But it wasn’t just Mr Cameron. Iain Duncan Smith’s think-tank, the Centre for Social Justice was determined to show it’s commitment to dealing with relative poverty and did this by rubbishing John Moore (one of Mrs Thatcher’s Secretaries of State for Social Security) who, in a 1989 speech, famously argued that absolute poverty no longer existed in Britain, and that relative poverty was just another name for inequality, which was the engine of capitalism, delivering higher living standards for all. In a 2006 report called The State of the Nation, they made a Conservative case for dealing with relative poverty:
In an age when absolute poverty a real danger for millions of people, the safety net represented an enormous advance. But in our own age, our ambitions should be higher. As individuals we should all have the chance to move forward and as a nation we should move forward with a sense of cohesion
(Obviously this is tremendously embarrassing for the CSJ of today, so don’t bother trying to find this report on their website either.) These weren’t isolated incidents. As shadow minister for charities, Greg Clarke repeatedly announced that the Conservatives had abandoned Moore’s arguments.
OK, so the Conservatives reversion to being the nasty party is hardly a great surprise, but please don’t just read this article and sneer at them. Yes, we need to criticise what they are doing to the Child Poverty Act, but we must also campaign against the policies that its evisceration will free them to do. In particular, the massive cuts to Child Tax Credit that will hit working and out-of-work parents. The End Child Poverty coalition (of which the TUC is a proud member) is calling on everyone who hates poverty to email their MPs, calling for them to ask the Chancellor to reconsider this cut.
Please join in – as the cut will probably be announced next week, this is urgent! You can join in through the Barnardo’s and Child Poverty Action Group websites. And, if you’re a Tweeter, here are some tweets you could use:
#Childtaxcredits are under threat in next week’s #summerbudget – help protect them http://ow.ly/P9Ncq
Until parents can earn a living wage, children need tax credits #summerbudget – RT and share to tell @George_Osborne
If wages remain low and tax credits go, it’s children who will pay #summerbudget – RT and share to tell @George_Osborne
Please tackle low wages before taking away tax credits – children will pay #summerbudget – RT and share to tell @George_Osborne
The Chancellor must make work pay BEFORE taking away tax credits that help children #summerbudget – RT and share to tell @George_Osborne