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.

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

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

Brexit is teaching the UK that it needs immigrants

Finally forced to confront the economic consequences of low migration, ministers are abandoning the easy rhetoric of the past.

Why did the UK vote to leave the EU? For conservatives, Brexit was about regaining parliamentary sovereignty. For socialists it was about escaping the single market. For still more it was a chance to punish David Cameron and George Osborne. But supreme among the causes was the desire to reduce immigration.

For years, as the government repeatedly missed its target to limit net migration to "tens of thousands", the EU provided a convenient scapegoat. The free movement of people allegedly made this ambition unachievable (even as non-European migration oustripped that from the continent). When Cameron, the author of the target, was later forced to argue that the price of leaving the EU was nevertheless too great, voters were unsurprisingly unconvinced.

But though the Leave campaign vowed to gain "control" of immigration, it was careful never to set a formal target. As many of its senior figures knew, reducing net migration to "tens of thousands" a year would come at an economic price (immigrants make a net fiscal contribution of £7bn a year). An OBR study found that with zero net migration, public sector debt would rise to 145 per cent of GDP by 2062-63, while with high net migration it would fall to 73 per cent. For the UK, with its poor productivity and sub-par infrastructure, immigration has long been an economic boon. 

When Theresa May became Prime Minister, some cabinet members hoped that she would abolish the net migration target in a "Nixon goes to China" moment. But rather than retreating, the former Home Secretary doubled down. She regards the target as essential on both political and policy grounds (and has rejected pleas to exempt foreign students). But though the same goal endures, Brexit is forcing ministers to reveal a rarely spoken truth: Britain needs immigrants.

Those who boasted during the referendum of their desire to reduce the number of newcomers have been forced to qualify their remarks. On last night's Question Time, Brexit secretary David Davis conceded that immigration woud not invariably fall following Brexit. "I cannot imagine that the policy will be anything other than that which is in the national interest, which means that from time to time we’ll need more, from time to time we’ll need less migrants."

Though Davis insisted that the government would eventually meet its "tens of thousands" target (while sounding rather unconvinced), he added: "The simple truth is that we have to manage this problem. You’ve got industry dependent on migrants. You’ve got social welfare, the national health service. You have to make sure they continue to work."

As my colleague Julia Rampen has charted, Davis's colleagues have inserted similar caveats. Andrea Leadsom, the Environment Secretary, who warned during the referendum that EU immigration could “overwhelm” Britain, has told farmers that she recognises “how important seasonal labour from the EU is to the everyday running of your businesses”. Others, such as the Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, the Business Secretary, Greg Clark, and the Communities Secretary, Sajid Javid, have issued similar guarantees to employers. Brexit is fuelling immigration nimbyism: “Fewer migrants, please, but not in my sector.”

The UK’s vote to leave the EU – and May’s decision to pursue a "hard Brexit" – has deprived the government of a convenient alibi for high immigration. Finally forced to confront the economic consequences of low migration, ministers are abandoning the easy rhetoric of the past. Brexit may have been caused by the supposed costs of immigration but it is becoming an education in its benefits.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.