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Moving the goal posts won't hide the coalition's failure on child poverty

Iain Duncan Smith's plan to change the way child poverty is measured is a distraction.

Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith speaks at last month's Conservative conference in Birmingham. Photograph: Getty Images.

The consultation on child poverty measurement announced by Iain Duncan Smith today is generating exasperated groans from those who have been engaged with the subject for decades.

It is not as if we haven’t been here before. The last extensive consultation ended in 2003 but the indicators have continued to be refined since then. The portfolio of measures that eventually became the targets in the Child Poverty Act 2010 were developed through a discussion between government and social scientists over many decades after the publication of Abel Smith and Townsend’s "rediscovery of poverty" book The Poor and the Poorest in 1965.

And the measures we now have are very good, arguably the best of any country in the world.  They encompass understandings of poverty as relative, absolute (actually constant), deprivation, overlaps of income and deprivation, and persistence. They have been adopted by international organisations such as the EU, OECD and UNICEF, and copied by other governments. Of course they are not perfect. It would be good to add an indicator of how deep poverty is (poverty gap). But do we really need a consultation to add new measures?

Without any fuss the government have already added a new severe measure of poverty – less than 50 per cent of the median and materially deprived – following the Frank Field review. The Child Poverty Strategy published in 2011 proposed a sensible list of ten indicators (additional to the five Child Poverty Act indicators) that they would use to monitor progress. Or the government could go further and revert to the list of 24 child indicators that DWP published in the Opportunity for All series between 1999 and 2007 covering poverty, health, education, housing and child protection.

There is no dearth of indicators; what we lack are policies that will continue to drive the figures downwards after a decade when 1.1 million children were lifted out of poverty. Instead, we have a consultation that is seeking to develop a "multidimensional indicator" of child poverty, relegating income – and especially the relative income measure – in the process.

Some people have never liked the relative poverty measure because it is a measure of inequality. Before Iain Duncan Smith, Conservative social security secretary John Moore, attempted to do away with it in the 1980s. Ministers now try to ridicule the relative measure because it showed a fall in child poverty in 2010-11, partly driven by a fall in median income. But that is why we have a portfolio of measures.

It is a national tragedy that after a decade of progress that has seen child poverty and child well-being improving, from a pretty low base, the coalition’s policies have sent it into reverse. Moving, adding or blending the goal posts will not hide this fact.

Jonathan Bradshaw is a Professor of Social Policy at the University of York and a trustee of the Child Poverty Action Group