On child poverty, choosing services over benefits is a progressive dead end

Labour must prioritise investment in universal childcare alongside income support, rather than simply trading one off against the other.

Are investments in services a better way of reducing child poverty than benefits that support income? ‘Yes’ argued IPPR director Nick Pearce this week when he called on Labour to find a new way to tackle child poverty that doesn’t rely on cash transfers, but instead builds institutions that attract popular support and can’t be dismantled at whim.

Much of what Nick says, as you would expect, makes good sense. Most would agree that a child poverty strategy that relies solely on benefits to prop up families’ incomes is neither effective nor sustainable. But equally, a strategy that regards children’s centres and expanded childcare as the only answer to the child poverty problem is also likely to be ineffectual.

The UK and the international evidence suggests that choosing services over benefits is a false choice and a progressive dead end.

Labour’s commitment to end child poverty drove action to (i) make work pay (ii) invest in childcare and early years services, and (iii) boost the incomes of families with children using the tax and benefits system. As a result, between the mid-1990s and 2008 the UK had the largest reduction in child poverty in the OECD. This unprecedented success was because a broad approach was pursued, not because the child poverty strategy was reduced to a simplistic choice of benefits over services. 

It is right to point out that those countries with low child poverty rates generally have higher rates of parental employment than the UK, but they certainly don’t achieve this at the expense of family benefits. OECD data shows that the Nordic countries all provide children’s benefits at broadly the same level as the UK and also provide other, more generous, benefits to families. The difference between us and them is that they prioritise investment in universal childcare alongside income support rather than simply trading one off against the other.

The spending switch we need to make is from spending billions dealing with the costs of child poverty to investing in preventing child poverty in the first place.

This is not about making tough choices as we pitch progressive ideas  - ‘childcare vs. child benefit’ - against each other. It’s actually more ambitious and urgent than that. Instead, it is a big decision to get the fundamentals rights -  to make our society fairer and our economy stronger -  which requires us to rethink public spending across the whole of government.

We know that without widespread public support, even policies proven to reduce child poverty are at the mercy of, sometimes unforgiving, political and economic forces.

Yet the appropriate response to evidence of declining public support, such as the analysis of existing polling published by Joseph Rowntree Foundation this week, is surely not just to build popular institutions but to also build a popular consensus around poverty reduction that can weather the bad times as well as good.

As others have noted, it is simply not correct to conceive attitudes as something solid and immovable.  We know polls show that the public regard the welfare state as one of the country’s finest achievements and, in future, there’s good reason to believe that rising living costs and falling living standards will be an important election battleground issue.

It’s worth bearing in mind that the policies that will make a difference to poverty  - investment in child benefit, affordable housing, childcare and decent jobs – are likely to be popular. Politicians may just find that showing leadership and championing policies that tackle poverty may have electoral as well as child poverty pay offs, too. 

A girl paints a wall in the Heygate Estate in the Walworth area on April 24, 2013 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

Alison Garnham is chief executive of the Child Poverty Action Group

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Douglas Carswell leaves Ukip to become independent MP

The Clacton MP quits his party but insists he will not rejoin the Conservatives or trigger a by-election. 

Douglas Carswell has long been a Ukip MP in name only. Now he isn't even that. Ukip's sole MP, who defected from the Conservatives in 2014, has announced that he is leaving the party.

Carswell's announcement comes as no great surprise. He has long endured a comically antagonistic relationship with Nigel Farage, who last month demanded his expulsion for the sin of failing to aid his knighthood bid. The Clacton MP's ambition to transform Ukip into a libertarian force, rather than a reactionary one, predictably failed. With the party now often polling in single figures, below the Liberal Democrats, the MP has left a sinking ship (taking £217,000 of opposition funding or "short money" with him). As Carswell acknowledges in his statement, Brexit has deprieved Ukip of its raison d'être.

He writes: "Ukip might not have managed to win many seats in Parliament, but in a way we are the most successful political party in Britain ever. We have achieved what we were established to do – and in doing so we have changed the course of our country's history for the better. Make no mistake; we would not be leaving the EU if it was not for Ukip – and for those remarkable people who founded, supported and sustained our party over that period.

"Our party has prevailed thanks to the heroic efforts of Ukip party members and supporters. You ensured we got a referendum. With your street stalls and leafleting, you helped Vote Leave win the referendum. You should all be given medals for what you helped make happen – and face the future with optimism.

"Like many of you, I switched to Ukip because I desperately wanted us to leave the EU. Now we can be certain that that is going to happen, I have decided that I will be leaving Ukip."

Though Ukip could yet recover if Theresa May disappoints anti-immigration voters, that's not a path that the pro-migration Carswell would wish to pursue. He insists that he has no intention of returning to the Conservatives (and will not trigger a new by-election). "I will simply be the Member of Parliament for Clacton, sitting as an independent."

Carswell's erstwhile Conservative colleagues will no doubt delight in reminding him that he was warned.  

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.