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.

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