Why Iain Duncan Smith is wrong on child poverty

Relegate the relative measure? Only if we want to pretend that poverty is something else altogether.

When is child poverty not child poverty? When it is measured using the relative poverty indicator if Iain Duncan Smith is to be believed today.

We use a range of different measures to assess poverty in the UK, but the one that we pay the most attention to, and that most often captures the headlines, is the relative poverty measure.

This indicator sets the poverty line for the UK at 60 per cent of the median household income (which is then adjusted to take into account a household’s composition and size). In other words, if a child lives in a household with an income less than 60 per cent of this national average, they are considered to be living in poverty.

This measure generates what look, at first glance, like counter-intuitive outcomes under some conditions. In 2010/11, for example, we witnessed declining average incomes in the UK but at the same time, a reduction in the numbers living in poverty. How, some have asked, can there be less poverty in a situation when we are all worse off?

The answer, of course, is simple. To achieve decreases in relative poverty in a period of declining median incomes such as now we have to protect the incomes of those at the bottom more robustly than those elsewhere in the distribution. It’s the right thing to do because children in these households are most vulnerable to further falls in income.

And this is exactly what the last government did. For example, as late as 2010 Labour introduced a disregard for child benefit in housing benefit and council tax benefit calculations. As a result, low income families were able to keep the whole of their child benefit payment, rather than watching it be offset against other forms of assistance.

In contrast, the coalition is cutting support for families left, right and centre. The value of working tax credit, child tax credit, child benefit and housing benefit have all been eroded in the last two years, with many more cuts to come. It is no surprise, then, that the Institute for Fiscal Studies projects that child poverty will begin to rise again from 2012/13.

Here, perhaps, lies the reason why Duncan Smith objects so vigorously to the relative poverty measure. As a minister expected to preside over the period when the thirteen-year downward trend in child poverty is predicted to turn back in the opposite direction, it may be no surprise that he is trying to change the yardstick against which the coalition will be measured.

No single indicator is perfect: all have strengths and weaknesses. But the great advantage of the relative measure is that it recognises that poverty goes far beyond existential basics, and instead is a question of being able to participate in the society within which we are situated. If children cannot enjoy the products, services and experiences which are the norm today, we should regard them as living in poverty.

That said, we all recognise the relative poverty measure does not capture all aspects of poverty and that other indicators provide useful information that can be read alongside. This is why the Child Poverty Act (CPA) 2010 requires the government track progress against three other key indicators: persistent poverty, material deprivation and absolute poverty. It is also why we concern ourselves with many other measures of child wellbeing in the UK. 

But the CPA goes further. Not only does it require us to measure progress against indicators other than relative poverty, it also demands that the government develop a child poverty strategy that addresses a host of ‘drivers’ beyond financial support. So rather than skew policy priorities towards welfare payments as suggested, the CPA actively requires government to consider parental employment, parenting skills, physical and mental health, education, childcare, social services, housing and social inclusion as part of its programme of action to address child poverty.

To claim, then, that the relative measure doesn’t tell us anything about the lived experience of poverty is nonsense.  And to suggest it is driving the wrong kind of policy to the exclusion of other areas is a misunderstanding of the CPA and the requirements on the strategy for which Duncan Smith is responsible.

Let’s supplement the measure by all means. Let’s explore the interesting relationships between income poverty and a range of other indicators. But relegate the relative measure? Only if we want to pretend that poverty is something else altogether.

Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith arrives for a Cabinet meeting at 10 Downing Street in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

Lindsay Judge is senior policy and research officer for the Child Poverty Action Group.

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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser