Child poverty is set to soar under the coalition

Cameron promised that there would be no "increase in child poverty". But the IFS says it will soar.

David Cameron has previously insisted that the government's austerity programme will not result "in any increase in child poverty". But today's IFS report suggests that entirely the reverse is true: the coalition's policies will lead to a dramatic rise in absolute poverty and relative poverty.

The number of children in absolute poverty in 2015 is forecast to rise by 500,000 to 3 million, while the number in relative poverty (defined as households with less than 60 per cent of the median income) is estimated to rise by 400,000. The planned introduction of IDS's Universal Credit will reduce the number in relative poverty by about 450,000 children and 600,000 working-age adults in 2020-21. However, other changes such as indexing benefits in line with the lower Consumer Prices Index (CPI), rather than the higher Retail Prices Index (RPI) (see James Plunkett's Staggers blog on the coalition's £11bn stealth cut), will more than offset the impact on poverty of the Universal Credit.

It's a finding that should set alarm bells ringing in Downing Street. Cameron and George Osborne have chosen, against the judgement of some in their party, 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 not only of being unfair but of being insincere. It was Cameron, after all, who made the Rawls-esque pledge 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."

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.

Getty
Show Hide image

What is the EU customs union and will Brexit make us leave?

International trade secretary Liam Fox's job makes more sense if we leave the customs union. 

Brexiteers and Remoaners alike have spent the winter months talking of leaving the "customs union", and how this should be weighed up against the benefits of controlling immigration. But what does it actually mean, and how is it different from the EU single market?

Imagine a medieval town, with a busy marketplace where traders are buying and selling wares. Now imagine that the town is also protected by a city wall, with guards ready to slap charges on any outside traders who want to come in. That's how the customs union works.  

In essence, a customs union is an agreement between countries not to impose tariffs on imports from within the club, and at the same time impose common tariffs on goods coming in from outsiders. In other words, the countries decide to trade collectively with each other, and bargain collectively with everyone else. 

The EU isn't the only customs union, or even the first in Europe. In the 19th century, German-speaking states organised the Zollverein, or German Customs Union, which in turn paved the way for the unification of Germany. Other customs unions today include the Eurasian Economic Union of central Asian states and Russia. The EU also has a customs union with Turkey.

What is special about the EU customs union is the level of co-operation, with member states sharing commercial policies, and the size. So how would leaving it affect the UK post-Brexit?

The EU customs union in practice

The EU, acting on behalf of the UK and other member states, has negotiated trade deals with countries around the world which take years to complete. The EU is still mired in talks to try to pull off the controversial Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the US, and a similar EU-Japan trade deal. These two deals alone would cover a third of all EU trade.

The point of these deals is to make it easier for the EU's exporters to sell abroad, keep imports relatively cheap and at the same time protect the member states' own businesses and consumers as much as possible. 

The rules of the customs union require member states to let the EU negotiate on their behalf, rather than trying to cut their own deals. In theory, if the UK walks away from the customs union, we walk away from all these trade deals, but we also get a chance to strike our own. 

What are the UK's options?

The UK could perhaps come to an agreement with the EU where it continues to remain inside the customs union. But some analysts believe that door has already shut. 

One of Theresa May’s first acts as Prime Minister was to appoint Liam Fox, the Brexiteer, as the secretary of state for international trade. Why would she appoint him, so the logic goes, if there were no international trade deals to talk about? And Fox can only do this if the UK is outside the customs union. 

(Conversely, former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg argues May will realise the customs union is too valuable and Fox will be gone within two years).

Fox has himself said the UK should leave the customs union but later seemed to backtrack, saying it is "important to have continuity in trade".

If the UK does leave the customs union, it will have the freedom to negotiate, but will it fare better or worse than the EU bloc?

On the one hand, the UK, as a single voice, can make speedy decisions, whereas the EU has a lengthy consultative process (the Belgian region of Wallonia recently blocked the entire EU-Canada trade deal). Incoming US President Donald Trump has already said he will try to come to a deal quickly

On the other, the UK economy is far smaller, and trade negotiators may discover they have far less leverage acting alone. 

Unintended consequences

There is also the question of the UK’s membership of the World Trade Organisation, which is currently governed by its membership of the customs union. According to the Institute for Government: “Many countries will want to be clear about the UK’s membership of the WTO before they open negotiations.”

And then there is the question of policing trade outside of the customs union. For example, if it was significantly cheaper to import goods from China into Ireland, a customs union member, than Northern Ireland, a smuggling network might emerge.

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.