Child poverty is set to soar under the coalition

Cameron promised child poverty would not increase. The IFS says it will rise by 300,000.

"The right test for our policies is how they help the most disadvantaged in society, not the rich."

David Cameron, Built to Last, March 2006

Yesterday brought the welcome news that child poverty fell to its lowest level since 1986 during Labour's final year in power, from 22 per cent to 20 per cent. The party missed its target of halving child poverty by 2010 but it's some achievement that the measure, which tripled under Margaret Thatcher from one in nine children to one in three (the worst in Europe), fell at all during the deepest recession since 1945.

Data from the Office for National Statistics shows that child poverty, which stood at 26 per cent in 1997 when Tony Blair became prime minister, fell to 20 per cent in 2009-2010. The figure is not the result of a general fall in median income.

As Tim Nichols of the Child Povery Action Group notes at Left Foot Forward: "The headline poverty mark is 60 per cent median income, so if median income falls, so does the poverty line, leaving some people who were just below it now just above it. But median income actually rose slightly." Gordon Brown's tax credits may have been derided as hopelessly complex and bureaucratic, but the facts show that they got the money where it was needed most.

Today's release from the Institute for Fiscal Studies suggests that George Osborne's decision to reduce state benefits will have the reverse effect. The IFS warns that child poverty will increase by roughly 300,000 by 2013-2014, largely due to "cuts to the generosity of benefits and tax credits by the coalition government". It's a finding that should set alarm bells ringing in Downing Street.

Cameron and George Osborne have chosen, against the judgement of several of their colleagues, to claim that their austerity package is a "progressive" one. Should poverty increase on their watch (as it is now certain to), they will stand accused of being not only unfair, but insincere. It was Cameron, after all, who made the Rawls-like declaration that "the right test for our policies is how they help the most disadvantaged in society" and not the wealthy.

A year later he promised: "We can make British poverty history, and we will make British poverty history." More recently, he pledged that the Budget and the Spending Review would not result in "any increase in child poverty".

There are plenty on the right who have urged the coalition to shift the goalposts and reject the internationally recognised definition of poverty (Imran Hussain, head of policy at the Child Poverty Action Group, defended this definition on The Staggers last year). For instance, Neil O'Brien, the director of Policy Exchange, has argued: "The problem with what the IFS is saying is that the measure they use isn't an indicator of real poverty; it's a measure of inequality.

"It defines 'poverty' as being below 60 percent of the average income. This is a hangover from the Gordon Brown era. Real poverty isn't the same as inequality. The IFS's definition would mean that there are actually more people in poverty in Britain today than there are in Poland."

But the government, to its credit, has so far refused to abandon the relative measure of child poverty. When Cameron claimed that the Spending Review would not increase child poverty, he used the same definition as Gordon Brown. He may soon wish he hadn't.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Theresa May is paying the price for mismanaging Boris Johnson

The Foreign Secretary's bruised ego may end up destroying Theresa May. 

And to think that Theresa May scheduled her big speech for this Friday to make sure that Conservative party conference wouldn’t be dominated by the matter of Brexit. Now, thanks to Boris Johnson, it won’t just be her conference, but Labour’s, which is overshadowed by Brexit in general and Tory in-fighting in particular. (One imagines that the Labour leadership will find a way to cope somehow.)

May is paying the price for mismanaging Johnson during her period of political hegemony after she became leader. After he was betrayed by Michael Gove and lacking any particular faction in the parliamentary party, she brought him back from the brink of political death by making him Foreign Secretary, but also used her strength and his weakness to shrink his empire.

The Foreign Office had its responsibility for negotiating Brexit hived off to the newly-created Department for Exiting the European Union (Dexeu) and for navigating post-Brexit trade deals to the Department of International Trade. Johnson was given control of one of the great offices of state, but with no responsibility at all for the greatest foreign policy challenge since the Second World War.

Adding to his discomfort, the new Foreign Secretary was regularly the subject of jokes from the Prime Minister and cabinet colleagues. May likened him to a dog that had to be put down. Philip Hammond quipped about him during his joke-fuelled 2017 Budget. All of which gave Johnson’s allies the impression that Johnson-hunting was a licensed sport as far as Downing Street was concerned. He was then shut out of the election campaign and has continued to be a marginalised figure even as the disappointing election result forced May to involve the wider cabinet in policymaking.

His sense of exclusion from the discussions around May’s Florence speech only added to his sense of isolation. May forgot that if you aren’t going to kill, don’t wound: now, thanks to her lost majority, she can’t afford to put any of the Brexiteers out in the cold, and Johnson is once again where he wants to be: centre-stage. 

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.