The Department for Work and Pensions's new Child Poverty Strategy lacks any way of measuring success. Photo: Getty
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Why is Iain Duncan Smith avoiding the elephant in the room?

The Department for Work and Pensions’ Child Poverty Strategy lacks any hint of a target. How will we know if it is succeeding?

The Department for Work and Pensions’ Child Poverty Strategy – published this morning – has a clear three-dimensional approach to tackling low-income: focusing on income, costs of living and educational attainment.

This is a promising middle way between a single income-based strategy – which the Government argues led to an unhelpful pursuit of “Poverty plus a pound” – and an over extended multi-dimensional approach. Demos has long-argued the pitfalls of using income alone to measure child poverty. Our analysis of 40,000 low-income households in poverty highlighted the importance of measuring other everyday indicators such as health, housing, debt and material deprivation.

So far, so promising. But this is where the good news ends.

While the framework seems clear, there is an elephant in the room. There is not a hint of a target, not a suggestion of how progress might be measured, or indeed what a vision of success might look like.

How will we know in future if this strategy is working, and child poverty falls? In the absence of a direct response to this question, it seems possible the government may drop the income-based measurement and put nothing in its place. Or indeed, we might have a situation where the government claims success in reducing child poverty through the achievement of policies, rather than outcomes – confusing the means with the ends.

The strategy reads more like a retrospective – defining poverty in a way that fits with the Government’s existing agenda. Many of the dozens of announcements relate to previous funding commitments, while almost everything the government has worked on since 2010 has been grouped into one of the three action areas - Supporting families into Work and increasing their earnings, Improving living standards, and Preventing poor children becoming poor adults through raising their educational attainment.

In this strategy, we are told that Universal Credit is the solution to tackling in work poverty and the Localism Act addresses neighbourhood deprivation. In some areas, the document does away with past or previously announced policies altogether and only talks about trends – “Nearly 1.7 million private sector jobs have been created since 2010…”. Where future plans are hinted at, some are bemusingly open ended – the government will reduce the costs of living by “Promoting competition across all areas”.

The convenient implication is that wins in these areas will be seen as a win for tackling child poverty.

A strategy which does little more than serves to give coherence to and justify previous and current government policy also has another risk – it is wildly open to being exploited for policy bandwagons.

Just an hour before its release, IDS and Osborne took to the Guardian to proclaim the strategy would tackle the “root causes” of poverty “entrenched worklessness, family breakdown, problem debt, drug and alcohol dependency”.

This “troubled family” world view – where poverty is a life choice, a symptom of moral decline – so beloved of Conservative ministers is entirely at odds with the rigorous evidence -base and priority areas presented in the strategy – one which recognises that while poverty is a major issue for drug addicts, problem drug addiction (at 0.9 per cent of the population) is not a major issue for people in poverty.

Even the addition of a child poverty target would fail to balance this fatal flaw.

Claudia Wood is deputy director of the think tank Demos

 

Claudia Wood is deputy director of Demos.

Photo: Getty
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Seven things we learnt from the Battle for Number 10

Jeremy Corbyn emerged the better as he and Theresa May faced a live studio audience and Jeremy Paxman. 

1. Jeremy Corbyn is a natural performer

The Labour leader put in a bravura performance in both the audience Q&A and in his tussle with Jeremy Paxman. He is often uncomfortable at Prime Minister’s Questions but outside of the Commons chamber he has the confidence of a veteran of countless panels, televised discussions and hustings.

If, like me, you watched him at more hustings in the Labour leadership contests of 2015 and 2016 than you care to count, this performance wasn’t a surprise. Corbyn has been doing this for a long time and it showed.

2. And he’s improving all the time

Jeremy Corbyn isn’t quite perfect in this format, however. He has a temper and is prone to the odd flash of irritation that looks bad on television in particular. None of the four candidates he has faced for the Labour leadership – not Yvette Cooper, not Andy Burnham, not Liz Kendall and not Owen Smith – have managed to get under his skin, but when an interviewer has done so, the results have never been pretty for the Labour leader.

The big fear going into tonight for Corbyn was that his temper would get the better of him. But he remained serene in the fact of Paxman’s attempts to rile him until quite close to the end. By that point, Paxman’s frequent interruptions meant that the studio audience, at least, was firmly on Corbyn’s side.

3. Theresa May was wise to swerve the debates

On Jeremy Corbyn’s performance, this validated Theresa May’s decision not to face him directly. He was fluent and assured, she was nervous and warbly.  It was a misstep even to agree to this event. Anyone who decides their vote as far as TV performances tonight will opt for Jeremy Corbyn, there’s no doubt of that.

But if she does make it back to Downing Street it will, in part, be because in one of the few good moves of her campaign she chose to avoid debating Corbyn directly.

4.…but she found a way to survive

Theresa May’s social care U-Turn and her misfiring campaign mean that the voters don’t love her as they once did. But she found an alternate route through the audience Q&A, smothering the audience with grimly dull answers that mostly bored the dissent out of listeners.

5. Theresa May’s manifesto has damaged her. The only question is how badly

It’s undeniable now that Theresa May’s election campaign has been a failure, but we still don’t know the extent of the failure. It may be that she manages to win a big majority by running against Jeremy Corbyn. She will be powerful as far as votes in the House of Commons but she will never again be seen as the electoral asset she once was at Westminster.

It could be that she ends up with a small majority in which case she may not last very much longer at Downing Street. And it could be that Jeremy Corbyn ends up defeating her on 8 June.

That the audience openly laughed when she talked of costings in her manifesto felt like the creaking of a rope bridge over a perilous ravine. Her path may well hold until 8 June, but you wouldn’t want to be in her shoes yourself and no-one would bet on the Conservative Party risking a repeat of the trip in 2022, no matter what happens in two weeks’ time.

6. Jeremy Paxman had a patchy night but can still pack a punch

If Jeremy Paxman ever does produce a collected Greatest Hits, this performance is unlikely to make the boxset. He tried and failed to rouse Jeremy Corbyn into anger and succeeded only in making the audience side with the Labour leader. So committed was he to cutting across Theresa May that he interrupted her while making a mistake.

He did, however, do a better job of damaging Theresa May than he did Jeremy Corbyn.  But not much better.

7. Theresa May may have opposed Brexit, but now she needs it to save her

It’s not a good sign for the sitting Prime Minister that the audience laughed at many of her statements. She had only one reliable set of applause lines: her commitment to getting the best Brexit deal.

In a supreme irony, the woman who opposed a Leave vote now needs the election to be a referendum re-run if she is to secure the big majority she dreams of. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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