The coalition's cap on benefit increases will mean a surge in child poverty

Raising benefits by less than the rate of inflation is a poverty-producing policy.

Internal Treasury documents do not make for a thrilling bedtime read but a flick last night through the government’s Impact Assessment (IA) toolkit proved quite instructive. It tells us, for example, that an IA should be prepared when a proposal "involves some kind of redistribution affecting the public, private or third sector", and that an IA "must be published when a Government Bill… is introduced into either House of Parliament".

Yet on the day the Welfare Benefits Uprating Bill 2012 receives its second reading in Parliament, we still have not seen a formal assessment of the government’s decision to cut an estimated 4 per cent from the real value of key benefits over the next three years.  So, in the absence of any official statement as to how this policy will affect child poverty, we decided to work it out for ourselves.

Our starting point is the study produced by the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) in October 2011 projecting child poverty rates for the UK over the next five to ten years. The picture, according to this report, looked bleak: an estimated 400,000 more children would be living in relative poverty by the end of the current parliament, while the number living in absolute poverty looked set to increase by 500,000 over the same period.  

Critically, the IFS singled out the decision to index most working-age benefits to the consumer price index (CPI) as opposed to the more generous retail price index (RPI) from 2011 onwards as the most significant policy driving child poverty upwards in the next five to ten years. But these projections do not now tell the full story. Since they were produced, the government has made other adjustments to the way it indexes benefits and tax credits, and now plans to add into this already potent brew the decision to uprate most in- and out-of work benefits, and going forward key elements of Universal Credit (UC), at a sub-inflation 1 per cent for three years.

As our new report published yesterday shows, the simple truth is that a sub-inflation uprating will be a poverty-producing policy. Delinking benefits from prices will result in a fall in the real standard of living for anyone who is reliant on the state for all or part of their income over the next three years. As a consequence, in the absence of any compensatory changes, the number of children living in absolute poverty will rise, while those children in families reliant on out-of-work benefits who already live below this threshold will see their poverty deepen further.

And alongside worsening absolute poverty rates, the relative fortunes of low income families can only deteriorate too. The government is presenting the 1 per cent uprating as ‘fair’ in light of the average earnings levels observed during the recession, as well as future public sector pay agreements. But what is conveniently obscured in this debate is that for many years prior to 2008, benefits rose at a significantly lower level than wages. In fact, the above-average earnings upratings of the last five years have had limited effect on the relative value of benefits eroded over a long period of time, showing how difficult it is to correct the damage done by year after year of under-indexation.

Nor is it clear where the equity is in pegging benefits to public sector pay rises going forward. With the Office for Budget Responsibility anticipating average earnings growth for the whole economy of between 2.2 per cent and 3.9 per cent over the next three years, the Uprating Bill will open up a gap between the poorest and the rest of the population. As a result, the minority will become further disconnected from the majority, and under these conditions, relative child poverty can but rise.

Looking at the historical picture should make us all pause for thought. Decoupling benefit levels from wages is widely recognised as the most significant policy that drove the dramatic increases in child poverty through the 1980s and 1990s, and the decision now to delink benefits from prices looks set to propel child poverty back up to levels we haven’t observed since the Thatcher years.

Given this, the Uprating Bill risks history repeating itself, with one significant difference: this time round we are likely to witness significant rises in child poverty against the backdrop of the Child Poverty Act (CPA) 2010, a law which requires the government take action to improve both the absolute and the comparative fortunes of children growing up in the UK today.

Yet three years of benefit uprating that is linked to neither prices nor average earnings will deliberately lock in both real and relative losses for low-income families, at the same time as locking them out of the mainstream.

Small wonder, then, that the required impact assessment has yet to materialise, but when it does, it will be interesting to see how the government squares the child poverty circle.

A young girl spends the half term school holiday playing in an an alleyway in the Gorton area of Manchester. Photograph: Getty Images.

Alison Garnham is chief executive of the Child Poverty Action Group

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Keir Starmer: “I don’t think anybody should underestimate the risks of getting Brexit wrong”

The former director of public prosecutions is now heading up Labour’s response to Brexit. But can he succeed in holding the Tories’ feet to the fire?

Early in his new role as shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer was accused of being a “second-rate lawyer”. The gibe, in a Commons debate, came from none other than Iain Duncan Smith. Starmer was director of public prosecutions for five years and later stood for parliament in 2015. No novice, then. Within a few days, Duncan Smith stood again in the House, this time to offer his apologies.

A fortnight later, I met Starmer at his quiet office in Westminster. He was sitting at a table piled with papers, in an office that, a discreet family photo aside, was unadorned. He had just got back from a whirlwind trip to Brussels, with many more such visits planned in the weeks ahead.

Starmer returned to the shadow cabinet after Jeremy Corbyn’s second leadership election victory last month. “The series of agreements we will have to reach in the next few years is probably the most important and complex we’ve had to reach since the Second World War,” he told me.

Starmer, who is 54, took his time entering politics. Born in 1962, he grew up in a Labour-supporting household in Surrey – his father was a toolmaker and his mother a nurse – and was named after Keir Hardie. After studying law at Leeds University, he practised as a human rights barrister and became a QC in 2002. In 2008, after varied legal work that included defending environmental campaigners in the McLibel case, he became the head of the Crown Prosecution Service for England and Wales as well as director of public prosecutions, positions he held until 2013.

When in 2015 Starmer ran for a seat in parliament to represent Holborn and St Pancras in London, it was assumed he would soon be putting his expertise to use in government. Instead, after Labour’s election defeat under Ed Miliband, he served as one of Corbyn’s junior shadow ministers, but resigned after the EU referendum in June.

Now, he is back on the opposition front bench and his forensic scrutiny of government policy is already unsettling the Conservatives. Philippe Sands, the law professor who worked with him on Croatia’s genocide lawsuit against Serbia, says he couldn’t think of anyone better to take on the Brexiteers in parliament. “It’s apparent that the government is rather scared of him,” Sands said. This is because Starmer is much more capable of teasing out the legal consequences of Brexit than the average Brexit-supporting Tory MP. Sands added: “It would be fun to watch if the stakes weren’t so very high.”

Starmer is a serious man and refused to be drawn on the character of his opponents. Instead, speaking slowly, as if weighing every word, he spelled out to me the damage they could cause. “The worst scenario is the government being unable to reach any meaningful agreement with the EU and [the UK] crashing out in March 2019 on no terms, with no transitional arrangement.” The result could be an economic downturn and job losses: “I don’t think anybody should underestimate the risks of getting this wrong.”

If Starmer seems pessimistic, it is because he believes time is short and progress has been slow. Since the referendum, disgruntled MPs have focused their attention on the final Brexit settlement. Yet if, as he argues, the starting position for our negotiations with the EU is wrong, the damage will have been done. MPs faced with a bad deal must either approve it or “risk the UK exiting the EU without a deal at all”.

It is this conviction that is driving his frantic schedule now. Starmer’s first month in the job is packed with meetings - with the representatives of the devolved nations, business leaders and his European counterparts.

He has also become a familiar face at the dispatch box. Having secured a commitment from David Davis, the minister for Brexit, that there will be transparent debate – “the words matter” – he is now demanding that plans to be published in January 2017 at the earliest, and that MPs will have a vote at this stage.

In his eyes, it will be hard for the Prime Minister, Theresa May, to resist, because devolved parliaments and the European parliament will almost certainly be having a say: “The idea there will be a vote in the devolved administrations but not in Westminster only needs to be stated to see it’s unacceptable.”

In Europe, Starmer said, the view is already that Britain is heading for the cliff edge. It was May’s pledge, that after Brexit the UK would not “return to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice”, which raised alarm. And among voters, there is “increasing anxiety” about the direction in which the UK is moving, he said. Even Tory voters are writing to him.

In the Labour Party, which is putting itself back together again after the summer’s failed coup, immigration remains the most vexed issue. Starmer told me that Labour had “earned a reputation for not listening” on the issue. Speaking on The Andrew Marr Show shortly after becoming shadow Brexit secretary, he said immigration was too high and ought to be reduced. But later that same day, Diane Abbott, a shadow cabinet colleague, contradicted him, publicly criticising immigration targets.

Starmer believes there is a bigger picture to consider when it comes to Britain’s Brexit negotiations. Take national security, where he warns that there are “significant risks” if communications break down between the UK and the EU. “Part of the negotiations must be ensuring we have the same level of co-operation on criminal justice, counterterrorism, data-sharing,” he said.

Crucially, in a Labour Party where many experienced politicians are backbench dissenters, he wants to reach out to MPs outside the shadow cabinet. “We have to work as Team Labour,” he stressed.

It’s a convincing rallying cry. But for some MPs, he represents more than that: a lone moderate in what can be seen as a far-left leadership cabal. Does he have any ambitions to lead Labour? “Having had two leadership elections in the space of 12 months, the last thing we need at the moment is discussion of the leadership of the Labour Party.” He has agreed to serve in the shadow cabinet, and is determined to stay there.

Starmer has found his purpose in opposition. “If we think things aren’t going right, we’ve got to call it out early and loudly. The worst situation is that we arrive at March 2019 with the wrong outcome. By then, it will be too late.”

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

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage