We must restore the value of children's benefits. Photo: Getty
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The minimum cost of raising a child to adulthood: £83,000

New research by Child Poverty Action Group shows that the cost of raising a child threatens to tip an increasing number of families into poverty.

Children cost. A lot. New research published today shows that raising a child from birth to 18 requires a minimum of £83,155 for a couple, and £96,905 for a lone parent family. (In case you are wondering, it costs a lone parent more than a couple to bring up a child because there is only one adult to make offsetting savings from their own living expenses).

There’s a lot going on behind this eye-watering figure. Part of the story is the well-known fact that costs are rising, and rising fast. The price of food – a quarter of the basic budget required for a child – has risen at 25 per cent in the last six years; housing continues to consume a growing share of a family’s budget; and the price of childcare – which can amount up to 45 per cent of the total cost of a child if both parents work full-time - continues to increase apace.

The other side of the story is equally well rehearsed. Family incomes remain under pressure as earnings flat-line and support from the state is cut back year on year. Unsurprisingly, the gap between the amount needed to raise a family and incomes is widening: a couple with both parents working full-time at national minimum wage is now 18 per cent shy of the income required to support two children at a minimum level. For an out-of-work couple, the shortfall is even more alarming: they lack 43 per cent of the necessary income to bring their children up adequately.

All this goes to the heart of why families with children have a higher risk of poverty than those without: children bring additional costs to a family while at the same time constraining parents’ earning power. Recently released figures show that 27 per cent of children live in poverty in the UK today, and this figure is set to rise. Yet the logical link between children’s costs and child poverty appears to have broken down in policy makers’ minds of late.

Rather than supporting families, child benefit will have been cut by almost 15 per cent in real terms over the course of this parliament, and the value of child tax credit has been set on a steady downward track too. While the government has announced a number of policies that help parents with costs at source – the extension of free school meals, for example, or additional nursery provision for very young children – the simple truth is these interventions do not come close to compensating families for the losses they have experienced as a result of austerity.

It’s clear there could be worse to come. It wasn’t that long ago that Ian Duncan Smith flew a kite proposing state support for families be capped at only two children to ensure claimants “cut their cloth in accordance with what capabilities and finances they have”. The idea hasn’t gone away: it emerged in a different guise only yesterday when a leading think-tank proposed that child benefit be tapered away with each additional child, and the over cap on benefits reduced to penurious levels.

By (falsely) pitting the ‘hard-working’ family against the ‘welfare-dependent’ in debates, the government has often tried to suggest a link between benefit receipt and irresponsibility with respect to family size that simply doesn’t exist. Is what we see creeping back into the political debate the age-old argument that poor people should not have children until they can afford them? When two parents working full time cannot net enough to cover the cost of a child, this could be a long wait...

Children are not a private luxury – they are a delight in themselves and an asset to the nation. Retreating from policies that help parents with the cost of children is a sure-fire way to degrade this asset by driving up child poverty. But the reverse is also true. If we want to put the UK back on the right trajectory with respect to child poverty – and polls suggest that many want just this – restoring the value of children’s benefits, and establishing a mechanism to maintain that value over time, has must be an essential part of the strategy.  

Lindsay Judge is senior policy and research officer for the Child Poverty Action Group.

Lindsay Judge is senior policy and research officer for the Child Poverty Action Group.

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Inside the progressive alliance that beat Zac Goldsmith in Richmond

Frantic phone calls, hundreds of volunteers, and Labour MPs constrained by their party. 

Politics for a progressive has been gloomy for a long time. On Thursday, in Richmond Park of all places, there was a ray of light. Progressive parties (at least some of them) and ordinary voters combined to beat Ukip, the Tories and their "hard Brexit, soft racist" candidate.

It didn’t happen by accident. Let's be clear, the Liberal Democrats do by-elections really well. Their activists flood in, and good luck to them. But Richmond Park was too big a mountain for even their focused efforts. No, the narrow win was also down to the fast growing idea of a progressive alliance. 

The progressive alliance is both a defensive and offensive move. It recognises the tactical weakness of progressives under first past the post – a system the Tories and their press know how to game. With progressive forces spilt between Labour, Liberal Democrats, Greens, the SNP, Plaid Cymru, the Women’s Equality Party and more – there is no choice but to co-operate, bring in proportional representation and then a whole new political world begins.

This move opens up the wider strategy – to end the domination of the City, and right-wing newspapers like the Mail, so Britain can have a real debate and make real choices about what sort of economy and society it wants. A pipedream? Well, maybe. But last night the fuse was lit in Richmond Park. The progressive alliance can work.

Months before the by-election, the pressure group for a progressive alliance that I chair, Compass, the Greens, and some Labour, Liberal Democrat and SNP MPs and activists, began considering this. The alternative after Brexit was staring into the void.

Then the Tory MP Zac Goldsmith stepped down over Heathrow. To be fair, he had pledged to do this, and we should have been better prepared. In the event, urgent behind-the-scenes calls were made between the Greens and the Liberal Democrats. Compass acted as the safe house. The Greens, wonderfully, clung onto democracy – the local party had to decide. And they decided to stand up for a new politics. Andree Frieze would have been the Green candidate, and enjoyed her moment in the autumn sun. She and her party turned it down for a greater good. So did the Women’s Equality Party.

Meanwhile, what about Labour? Last time, they came a distant third. Again the phones were hit and meetings held. There was growing support not to stand. But what would they get back from the Liberal Democrats, and what did the rules say about not standing? It was getting close to the wire. I spent an hour after midnight, in the freezing cold of Aberdeen, on the phone to a sympathetic Labour MP trying to work out what the party rule book said before the selection meeting.

At the meeting, I am told, a move was made from the floor not to select. The London regional official ruled it out of order and said a candidate would be imposed if they didn’t select. Some members walked out at this point. Where was the new kinder, gentler politics? Where was membership democracy? Fast forward to last night, and the Labour candidate got less votes than the party has members.

The idea of a progressive alliance in Richmond was then cemented in a draughty church hall on the first Tuesday of the campaign – the Unitarian Church of course. Within 48 hours notice, 200 local activist of all parties and none had come together to hear the case for a progressive alliance. Both the Greens and Compass produced literature to make the case for voting for the best-placed progressive candidate. The Liberal Democrats wove their by-election magic. And together we won.

It’s a small victory – but it shows what is possible. Labour is going to have to think very hard whether it wants to stay outside of this, when so many MPs and members see it as common sense. The lurch to the right has to be stopped – a progressive alliance, in which Labour is the biggest tent in the campsite, is the only hope.

In the New Year, the Progressive Alliance will be officially launched with a steering committee, website and activists tool-kit. There will also be a trained by-election hit squad, manifestos of ideas and alliances build locally and across civil society.

There are lots of problems that lie ahead - Labour tribalism, the 52 per cent versus the 48 per cent, Scottish independence and the rest. But there were lots of problems in Richmond Park, and we overcame them. And you know, working together felt good – it felt like the future. The Tories, Ukip and Arron Banks want a different future – a regressive alliance. We have to do better than them. On Thursday, we showed we could.

Could the progressive alliance be the start of the new politics we have all hoped for?

Neal Lawson is the Chair of Compass, the pressure group for the progressive alliance.

Neal Lawson is chair of the pressure group Compass, which brings together progressives from all parties and none. His views on internal Labour matters are personal ones.