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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Leader: Theresa May and the resurgence of the state

More than any of her recent predecessors, the Prime Minister seems willing to challenge the economic and political orthodoxies of the past 35 years.

Theresa May entered office in more tumultuous circumstances than any other prime minister since 1945. The UK’s vote to leave the European Union was a remarkable rebuke to the political and business establishment and an outcome for which few had prepared. Mrs May recognised that the result was more than a revolt against Brussels. It reflected a deeper alienation and discontent. Britain’s inequalities of wealth and opportunity, its regional imbalances and its distrusted political class all contributed to the Remain campaign’s ­defeat. As she said in her speech in Birmingham on 11 July: “Make no mistake, the referendum was a vote to leave the European Union, but it was also a vote for serious change.”

When the financial crisis struck in 2007-2008, David Cameron, then leader of the opposition, was caught out. His optimistic, liberal Conservative vision, predicated on permanent economic growth, was ill-suited to recession and his embrace of austerity tainted his “modernising” project. From that moment, the purpose of his premiership was never clear. At times, austerity was presented as an act of pragmatic bookkeeping; at others, as a quest to shrink the state permanently.

By contrast, although Mrs May cautiously supported Remain, the Leave vote reinforced, rather than contradicted, her world-view. As long ago as March 2013, in the speech that signalled her leadership ambitions, she spoke of the need to confront “vested interests in the private sector” and embrace “a more strategic role” for the state. Mrs May has long insisted on the need to limit free movement of people within the ­European Union, and anticipated the causes of the Leave vote. The referendum result made the national reckoning that she had desired inevitable.

More than any of her recent predecessors, the Prime Minister seems willing to challenge the economic and political orthodoxies of the past 35 years. She has promised worker representation on company boards, binding shareholder votes on executive pay, improved corporate governance and stricter controls on foreign takeovers.

The shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, has set the ­Labour Party on a similar course, stating in his conference speech that the “winds of globalisation” are “blowing against the belief in the free market and in favour of intervention”. He pointedly criticised governments which did not try to save their domestic steel industries as China dumped cheap steel on to global markets.

We welcome this new mood in politics. As John Gray wrote in our “New Times” special issue last week, by reasserting the role of the state as the final guarantor of social ­cohesion, Mrs May “has broken with the neoliberal model that has ruled British politics since the 1980s”.

The Prime Minister has avoided the hyperactive style of many new leaders, but she has deviated from David Cameron’s agenda in several crucial respects. The target of a national Budget surplus by 2020 was rightly jettisoned (although Mrs May has emphasised her commitment to “living within our means”). Chancellor Philip Hammond’s Autumn Statement on 23 November will be the first test of the government’s ­fiscal boldness. Historically low borrowing costs have strengthened the pre-existing case for infrastructure investment to support growth and spread prosperity.

The greatest political ­challenge facing Mrs May is to manage the divisions within her party. She and her government must maintain adequate access to the European single market, while also gaining meaningful control of immigration. Her statist economic leanings are already being resisted by the free-market fundamentalists on her benches. Like all prime ministers, Mrs May must balance the desire for clarity with the need for unity.

“Brexit means Brexit,” she has repeatedly stated, underlining her commitment to end the UK’s 43-year European
affair. If Mrs May is to be a successful and even transformative prime minister, she must also prove that “serious change” means serious change and a determination to create a society that does not only benefit the fortunate few. 

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories