How Cameron changed his tune on child poverty

In a 2006 speech, the Prime Minister praised the concept of relative poverty.

"I want this message to go out loud and clear: the Conservative Party recognises, will measure and will act on relative poverty.

Poverty is relative – and those who pretend otherwise are wrong."

David Cameron, Scarman lecture, 22 November 2006

David Cameron's government has failed to reduce child poverty, so it will redefine it. That, in short, is the explanation for Iain Duncan Smith's speech today in which the Work and Pensions Secretary will announce that the government is consulting on changing the current measure.

While Labour reduced child poverty by 900,000, soon-to-be-released figures will show that it has risen significantly under the coalition. Indeed, the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) has forecast that by 2015 the number of children in relative poverty (defined as households with less than 60 per cent of the median income) will have risen by 400,000, and that by 2020, 23 per cent of British children will live in poverty.

It this internationally-recognised definition of poverty that Duncan Smith has rejected. In his appearance on the Today programme this morning, IDS contended that it was too narrow (focusing solely on income) and that it could lead to perverse results. For instance, if average incomes fall, the poverty line falls too. Yet it was precisely for this reason that Labour's poverty target also included an absolute poverty line.

Absolute poverty is defined by the UN as "a condition characterised by severe deprivation of basic human needs, including food, safe drinking water, sanitation facilities, health, shelter, education and information. It depends not only on income but also on access to services." Yet in a developed country such as Britain, poverty is both absolute and relative.

Relative poverty denotes those who are unable to live to a similar standard to the majority of the population. As the Joseph Rowntree Foundation notes, those  affected may lack "new and not second hand clothes, adequate shoes, a meal with meat or fish once every two days, adequate heating, a television, being able to go to the pub or a social outing with friends once a week, having an annual holiday". And high levels of relative poverty are typically disastrous for a modern society. As the empirical masterpiece The Spirit Level (a book which Ed Miliband asked all his staff to read last summer) showed, those countries with higher levels of inequality suffer from higher levels of crime, educational failure, social immobility, depression, drug abuse and obesity.

There was a time when Cameron appeared to recognise as much. In his 2006 Scarman lecture (quoted above), the-then leader of the opposition declared:

We need to think of poverty in relative terms – the fact that some people lack those things which others in society take for granted.

I want this message to go out loud and clear: the Conservative Party recognises, will measure and will act on relative poverty.

Poverty is relative – and those who pretend otherwise are wrong.

Even if we are not destitute, we still experience poverty if we cannot afford things that society regards as essential.

Fighting relative poverty [is] a central policy goal.

Fine words indeed. Yet he now cynically rejects this measure in order to mask his failure on child poverty and Labour's success. Was Cameron's brief flirtation with the concept of relative poverty merely an exercise in detoxification, or has the Prime Minister undergone a genuine intellectual shift? It is hard to say, but we should ensure he is forced to explain.

The IFS has forecast that child poverty will rise by 500,000 to 3 million by 2015. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.