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.

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There's nothing Luddite about banning zero-hours contracts

The TUC general secretary responds to the Taylor Review. 

Unions have been criticised over the past week for our lukewarm response to the Taylor Review. According to the report’s author we were wrong to expect “quick fixes”, when “gradual change” is the order of the day. “Why aren’t you celebrating the new ‘flexibility’ the gig economy has unleashed?” others have complained.

Our response to these arguments is clear. Unions are not Luddites, and we recognise that the world of work is changing. But to understand these changes, we need to recognise that we’ve seen shifts in the balance of power in the workplace that go well beyond the replacement of a paper schedule with an app.

Years of attacks on trade unions have reduced workers’ bargaining power. This is key to understanding today’s world of work. Economic theory says that the near full employment rates should enable workers to ask for higher pay – but we’re still in the middle of the longest pay squeeze for 150 years.

And while fears of mass unemployment didn’t materialise after the economic crisis, we saw working people increasingly forced to accept jobs with less security, be it zero-hours contracts, agency work, or low-paid self-employment.

The key test for us is not whether new laws respond to new technology. It’s whether they harness it to make the world of work better, and give working people the confidence they need to negotiate better rights.

Don’t get me wrong. Matthew Taylor’s review is not without merit. We support his call for the abolishment of the Swedish Derogation – a loophole that has allowed employers to get away with paying agency workers less, even when they are doing the same job as their permanent colleagues.

Guaranteeing all workers the right to sick pay would make a real difference, as would asking employers to pay a higher rate for non-contracted hours. Payment for when shifts are cancelled at the last minute, as is now increasingly the case in the United States, was a key ask in our submission to the review.

But where the report falls short is not taking power seriously. 

The proposed new "dependent contractor status" carries real risks of downgrading people’s ability to receive a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. Here new technology isn’t creating new risks – it’s exacerbating old ones that we have fought to eradicate.

It’s no surprise that we are nervous about the return of "piece rates" or payment for tasks completed, rather than hours worked. Our experience of these has been in sectors like contract cleaning and hotels, where they’re used to set unreasonable targets, and drive down pay. Forgive us for being sceptical about Uber’s record of following the letter of the law.

Taylor’s proposals on zero-hours contracts also miss the point. Those on zero hours contracts – working in low paid sectors like hospitality, caring, and retail - are dependent on their boss for the hours they need to pay their bills. A "right to request" guaranteed hours from an exploitative boss is no right at all for many workers. Those in insecure jobs are in constant fear of having their hours cut if they speak up at work. Will the "right to request" really change this?

Tilting the balance of power back towards workers is what the trade union movement exists for. But it’s also vital to delivering the better productivity and growth Britain so sorely needs.

There is plenty of evidence from across the UK and the wider world that workplaces with good terms and conditions, pay and worker voice are more productive. That’s why the OECD (hardly a left-wing mouth piece) has called for a new debate about how collective bargaining can deliver more equality, more inclusion and better jobs all round.

We know as a union movement that we have to up our game. And part of that thinking must include how trade unions can take advantage of new technologies to organise workers.

We are ready for this challenge. Our role isn’t to stop changes in technology. It’s to make sure technology is used to make working people’s lives better, and to make sure any gains are fairly shared.

Frances O'Grady is the General Secretary of the TUC.