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: Martin Whitfield
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Labour MP for East Lothian Martin Whitfield: "I started an argument and ended up winning an election"

The former primary school teacher still misses home. 

Two months ago, Martin Whitfield was a primary school teacher in Prestonpans, a small town along the coast from Edinburgh. Then he got into an argument. It was a Saturday morning shortly after the snap election had been called, and he and other members of the local Labour party began discussing a rumour that the candidate would be an outsider.

“I started an argument that this was ridiculous, we couldn’t have a candidate helicoptered in,” he recalls. He pointed out that one of the main issues with the Scottish National Party incumbent, the economist and journalist George Kerevan, was that he was seen as an outsider.

“I kept arguing for an hour and a half and people started gently moving away,” he jokes. “About two days later I was still going on, and I thought enough’s enough.” 

He called Iain Gray, the Scottish Labour veteran, who interrupted him. “He said, 'Right Martin, are you going to put up or shut up?’ So I filled in the forms.

"Then I had to have a very interesting conversation with my wife.”

One successful election campaign later, he is sitting in the airy, glass-roofed atrium of Westminster’s Portcullis House. Whitfield has silver hair, glasses, and wears a Labour-red tie with his shirt. He looks every bit the approachable primary school teacher, and sometimes he forgets he isn’t anymore. 

I ask how the school reacted to his election bid, and he begins “I have”, and then corrects himself: “There is a primary four class I had the pleasure to teach.” The children wanted to know everything from where parliament was, to his views on education and independence. He took unpaid leave to campaign. 

“Actually not teaching the children was the hardest thing,” he recalls. “During the campaign I kept bumping into them when I was door-knocking.”

Whitfield was born in Newcastle, in 1965, to Labour-supporting parents. “My entire youth was spent with people who were socialists.”

His father was involved in the Theatre Workshop, founded by the left-wing director Joan Littlewood. “We were part of a community which supported each other and found value in that support in art and in theatre,” he says. “That is hugely important to me.” 

He trained as a lawyer, but grew disillusioned with the profession and retrained as a teacher instead. He and his wife eventually settled in Prestonpans, where they started a family and he “fought like mad” to work at the local school. She works as the marketing manager for the local theatre.

He believes he won his seat – one of the first to be touted as a possible Labour win – thanks to a combination of his local profile, the party’s position on independence and its manifesto, which “played brilliantly everywhere we discussed it”. 

It offered hope, he says: “As far as my doorstep discussion in East Lothian went, some people were for and against Jeremy Corbyn, some people were for and against Kezia Dugdale, but I didn’t find anyone who was against the manifesto.”

Whitfield’s new job will mean long commutes on the East Coast line, but he considers representing the constituency a “massive, massive honour”. When I ask him about East Lothian, he can’t stop talking.

“MPs do tend to say ‘my constituency’s a microcosm’, but it really is Scotland in miniature. We have a fishing industry, crabs and lobsters, the agricultural areas – the agricultural soil is second to none.” The area was also historically home to heavy industry. 

After his first week in Westminster, Whitfield caught the train back to Scotland. “That bit when I got back into East Lothian was lovely moment,” he says. “I was home.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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