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

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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.