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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Can Philip Hammond save the Conservatives from public anger at their DUP deal?

The Chancellor has the wriggle room to get close to the DUP's spending increase – but emotion matters more than facts in politics.

The magic money tree exists, and it is growing in Northern Ireland. That’s the attack line that Labour will throw at Theresa May in the wake of her £1bn deal with the DUP to keep her party in office.

It’s worth noting that while £1bn is a big deal in terms of Northern Ireland’s budget – just a touch under £10bn in 2016/17 – as far as the total expenditure of the British government goes, it’s peanuts.

The British government spent £778bn last year – we’re talking about spending an amount of money in Northern Ireland over the course of two years that the NHS loses in pen theft over the course of one in England. To match the increase in relative terms, you’d be looking at a £35bn increase in spending.

But, of course, political arguments are about gut instinct rather than actual numbers. The perception that the streets of Antrim are being paved by gold while the public realm in England, Scotland and Wales falls into disrepair is a real danger to the Conservatives.

But the good news for them is that last year Philip Hammond tweaked his targets to give himself greater headroom in case of a Brexit shock. Now the Tories have experienced a shock of a different kind – a Corbyn shock. That shock was partly due to the Labour leader’s good campaign and May’s bad campaign, but it was also powered by anger at cuts to schools and anger among NHS workers at Jeremy Hunt’s stewardship of the NHS. Conservative MPs have already made it clear to May that the party must not go to the country again while defending cuts to school spending.

Hammond can get to slightly under that £35bn and still stick to his targets. That will mean that the DUP still get to rave about their higher-than-average increase, while avoiding another election in which cuts to schools are front-and-centre. But whether that deprives Labour of their “cuts for you, but not for them” attack line is another question entirely. 

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.

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