Coalition should "come clean" on child poverty

Even the government doesn't think it can meet its own targets. A new plan is needed.

In his first speech as the government's child poverty adviser, Alan Milburn today told the coalition to "come clean" on the impossibility of meeting the poverty reduction targets enshrined in the 2010 Child Poverty Act. The challenge of reducing child poverty to less than 10 per cent by 2020 has been laid bare by analysis revealing the heavy work done by tax credits in raising family incomes above the poverty line over the last 15 years. Work did not do enough: parental employment rates rose considerably over this period but low wages limited the contribution of paid work to reducing family poverty.

This is now the central challenge for the child poverty agenda: how to reduce poverty when the only tool that been shown to be effective -- more generous cash transfers -- is no longer available on any meaningful scale. The task is made harder by analysis highlighting the contribution that women's paid work has made to rising family incomes over the last few decades. This source of income is likely to diminish as public sector jobs are lost and support for childcare is reduced for some families. As a result, the Institute for Fiscal Studies has stated that it's "almost incredible" that the child poverty targets can be met as they stand.

So Alan Milburn is right to challenge both the coalition and Labour to get real about child poverty. The Chancellor's Autumn Statement, featuring cuts to tax credits that will push 100,000 more children into poverty, implicitly confirmed that the government doesn't think it can meet its own targets either. But officially the coalition remains committed to the 2010 Act, so it needs to say where it will focus its efforts. Milburn makes a strong case for prioritising the under fives, ensuring that no child is born into poverty. If we cannot afford to lift all children out of poverty, concentrating on the youngest gives them the best chance to flourish later in life.

The importance of raising incomes in poor families is obvious, but families also need good quality services to give children the best start. There is no "either/or" deal here. Milburn's call for the coalition to set out a long-term plan to deliver free childcare for all families is right. IPPR research shows that universal childcare could pay for itself over the medium-term once the extra taxes paid by working parents are taken into account, while the extra earnings would help lift many families out of poverty. A mechanism for enabling childcare spend to contribute towards the child poverty targets would drive a duel strategy of investment in incomes and services. In the longer term, labour market reforms that support higher wages for parents would take some of the burden off the benefits system.

The public's ambiguous support for ending child poverty demonstrates the failure of this agenda to resonate with families. Milburn's broader plea to locate the child poverty debate in a wider discussion of economic security is spot on. Few families are continually stuck in deep poverty, but many move in and out of poverty as short-term jobs come to an end or families grow. Free childcare, flexible working opportunities, decent wages and job security matter for most low-to-mid income families, not just the poorest.

Kayte Lawton is a senior research fellow at the IPPR

Kayte Lawton is senior research fellow at IPPR.

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle