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

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

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.