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

David Cameron shows Labour how to do it

Leftwing rhetoric masked rightwing reality in Cameron's conference speech.

“The tanks are in the kitchen,” was the gloomy verdict of one Labour staffer to a speech in which the Prime Minister roamed freely into traditional left-wing territory.

But don’t be fooled: David Cameron is still the leader of an incredibly right-wing government for all the liberal-left applause lines.

He gave a very moving account of the difficulties faced by careleavers: but it is his government that is denying careleavers the right to claim housing benefit after they turn 22.

He made a powerful case for expanding home ownership: but his proposed solution is a bung for buy-to-let boomers and dual-earner childless couples, the only working-age demographic to do better under Cameron than under Labour.

On policy, he made just one real concession to the left: he stuck to his guns on equal rights and continued his government’s assault on the ridiculous abuse of stop-and-search. Neither of these are small issues, and they are a world away from the Conservative party before Cameron – but they also don’t cost anything.

In exchange for a few warm words, Cameron will get the breathing space to implement a true-blue Conservative agenda, with an ever-shrinking state for most of Britain, accompanied by largesse for well-heeled pensioners, yuppie couples, and small traders.

But in doing so, he gave Labour a lesson in what they must do to win again. Policy-wise,it is Labour – with their plans to put rocketboosters under the number of new housing units built – who have the better plan to spread home ownership than Cameron’s marginal solutions. But last week, John McDonnelll focussed on the 100,000 children in temporary accomodation. They are undoubtedly the biggest and most deserving victims of Britain’s increasingly dysfunctional housing market. But Labour can’t get a Commons majority – or even win enough seats to form a minority government – if they only talk about why their policies are right for the poor. They can’t even get a majority of votes from the poor that way.

What’s the answer to Britain’s housing crisis? It’s more housebuilding, including more social housing. Labour can do what Cameron did today in Manchester – and deliver radical policy with moderate rhetoric, or they can lose.

But perhaps, if Cameron feels like the wrong role model, they could learn from a poster at the People’s History Museum, taken not from Labour’s Blairite triumphs or even the 1960s, but from 1945: “Everyone – yes, everyone – will be better off under a Labour government”.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.