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.
Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.