The government seems stuck in deep denial about the child poverty impacts of its programme. Photo: Getty
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Why we now need to reset the child poverty targets

Alan Milburn's call to reset the 2020 target to end child poverty is both necessary and regrettable.

The independent Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission confirmed today what we’ve known for a while: that we are desperately off-course as a country when it comes to child poverty. Rather than making slow but steady progress to reduce child poverty to minimal levels, we are now heading in the opposite direction. A child poverty crisis is brewing in the air.

It wasn’t always like this. Just a few years ago, child poverty campaigners like us were riding high. We had witnessed a period during which investments in financial support for families, employment support and childcare had helped lift over 1 million children out of poverty. The Child Poverty Act 2010 had just been passed with strong cross-party support, committing our then and future governments to time-bound targets to "make child poverty history". From this point on, the slogan wasn’t just campaigning rhetoric; it was the law of the land.

Despite this, things have not progressed as hoped. One in four children are poor and two thirds of poor children have a working parent. Independent analysis has shown time and again that it is  families with children who have borne the brunt of austerity, absorbing 70 per cent of all cuts to benefits and tax credits. Child benefit alone has lost 14 per cent of its real value over the course of this parliament; children’s services have been decimated as a result of cuts to local authority funding; and expensive giveaways such as the increase in the personal tax allowance don’t help those on the lowest incomes. As Orwell might have put it, we may be "all in it together", but some of us are clearly more "in it" than others.

And low-income parents haven’t just taken it in the neck financially: increasingly they are blamed for their own poverty. It is their fault that their wages are low (even though the squeeze on mid-level jobs in our hourglass economy has been well-documented); that their hours of work are truncated (when 3.4m people are currently underemployed, looking to work more hours to top up their wages); and their rents are increasing exponentially (although cheaper areas also have fewer jobs). Parents are criticised for how they spend their money, how they raise their children; and indeed, from some quarters, for simply having children at all.

It comes as no surprise, then, that child poverty rates are on the up. The Institute for Fiscal Studies projections warn that there will be 400,000 more children living in poverty in the UK by 2015 than there were in 2010. Current policies will impoverish a further half a million children by 2020. Arguably, that’s best case scenario: these figures do not factor in the poverty effects of future policies that are likely to fall hardest on low-income families too.

Given this, the Commission has made the radical suggestion: that we face up to that facts and acknowledge we will not reach our statutory targets to end child poverty by 2020. However, the Commission also makes clear that failing to achieve the child poverty targets by 2020 does not mean they are unachievable: reducing child poverty to  minimal levels is something similar countries to our own have done, and remains a critical – and indeed popular – public policy objective.  

Are Alan Milburn and his fellow commissioners letting the government off the hook? A bit, perhaps. It would certainly have been appropriate for the child poverty watchdog to explain in more detail how this parlous state of affairs has occurred. The report skates over the fact that changes to the way that benefits are uprated are indisputably the biggest driver of the child poverty increases the IFS projects.   

But the Commission’s approach is also sensible. Rather than suggest wearily that we aren’t going to meet the child poverty targets by 2020, and that we walk away from the promises made to a generation of children with a sigh, they propose we reset the clock. The Commission makes clear that the objective of reducing child poverty to minimal levels must remain intact, but we need to find a new end date that brings this back into the realms of reality.

How sad that we need to be thinking like this. But the Commission’s approach has the virtue of honesty, something which has been decidedly lacking from the debate in recent years. The government in particular seems stuck in deep denial about the child poverty impacts of its programme: incredibly, ministers still claim they are on track to meet the 2020 targets. They no longer report on the impact of policy announcements on child poverty for example; evade questions on the topic; and hide behind poverty data that conveniently lags so far back in time it has yet to catch up with reality.

The Commission’s announcement feels like a breath of fresh air, then, in a debate awash with confusion, misinformation and out-of-date numbers. But when millions of children are growing up poor in a wealthy country like the UK, it also needs to be a wake-up call to politicians, activists, and the public alike. We have failed once; we cannot afford to do it again. Child poverty costs us all dear; it is time to put this right.

Alison Garnham is chief executive of the Child Poverty Action Group

Alison Garnham is chief executive of the Child Poverty Action Group

Photo: Getty
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Tim Shipman's Diary

The Sunday Times political editor on poker, pasta – and being called fat by Andrew Marr.

A couple of Saturdays ago, I was having dinner with my wife at Padella (which serves the best pasta in London) when the phone rang. It was an irate David Davis. “You’re reporting that a friend of mine has said Philip May wants Theresa to quit. It’s not true. I don’t even know Philip May.” I calmly explained that I wasn’t accusing him and I had his friend on tape. “Who was it?” he asked me. I wasn’t saying. “Well, it’s not bloody helpful,” the Brexit Secretary said before hanging up.

The following day, I woke up to watch Philip Hammond explain to the BBC’s Andrew Marr why his cabinet colleagues had leaked me details of how the Chancellor had branded public-sector workers as “overpaid”. “I don’t know who [Tim Shipman’s] sources are,” he said, after inaccurately suggesting that I was being fed information as part of some Brexiteer conspiracy to discredit the cabinet’s leading Remainer.

On Monday, I did an interview with Eddie Mair in the back of a beer garden in Ireland, where I’m playing cricket. In reality, the leaks had much more to do with colleagues irritated at Hammond’s sometimes grating behaviour. Word reaches me that he regards it all as very unhelpful. It seems odd after 16 years in political journalism to have to say this, but we’re not here to be helpful. It might make sense if our politicians gave us less to write about. Over the past three years, they have delighted us enough.

Back for seconds

Voter fatigue is a recognised problem. No one talks about journalist fatigue. We all hope that Theresa May rejuvenates on her Swiss walk (perhaps regenerating into Jodie Whittaker). Thanks to the decision she took when she last went walking, I’m facing the obliteration of another summer holiday writing a second political tome covering the period since my Brexit book, All Out War, up to the general election. What looked at one stage like the boring second album is now a rip-roaring tale of hubris and nemesis. When I asked for title suggestions on Twitter, there were plenty of votes for “Mayhem” and “Mayday”. The most imaginative was: “The Snarling Duds of May”. Sadly, it’s too long for my publisher.

Catching the big fish

The new-found attention from writing books is a double-edged sword. To my delight, then embarrassment, Andrew Marr referred to me twice as “the doyen” of the print lobby. “We keep trying to stop him,” Marr’s editor, the redoubtable Rob Burley, confided at a rival magazine’s summer party. The following week, Marr said: “The biggest fish in the pool, if only physically, is Tim Shipman…” I got a text from a special adviser friend asking: “Are you paying him?” I pointed out that Britain’s best-known political interviewer had just called me a fat bastard live on national television.

New blood

I make my debut on BBC2’s Newsnight alongside Ash Sarkar of Novara Media, one of the new websites that cheerlead for Jeremy Corbyn. She is nerveless and fluent in her mid-twenties, when I was a tongue-tied naif. People who get the Corbyn phenomenon are rightly getting more airtime. Off the air, she tells me that she’s a “libertarian anarchist” and then asks me where I live. “Are you going to smash it up?” I ask nervously. She smiles. Ash’s main concern is to paint the town red in the Saturday-night sense. A Labour MP draws attention to her Twitter biog, which concludes: “Walks like a supermodel. Fucks like a champion. Luxury communism now!” Bravo. I think…

Brexit gamble

I was greatly cheered by the induction in the Poker Hall of Fame of the late Dave “Devil­fish” Ulliott, the player who did the most to create the TV and online poker boom in Britain. Westminster has a few useful card sharps – Paul Stephenson, formerly of Vote Leave, among them – but I don’t know any politicians who play. By contrast, the US presidents Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon were all accomplished poker players.

When I worked in the US, I interviewed a member of Barack Obama’s poker circle when he was a state senator in Chicago. The cautious, composed and occasionally bold player he described was the mirror image of the politician we came to know. His Republican rival in 2008, John McCain, preferred the chaotic gambling of the craps table and his erratic campaign reflected that. Too many of the current cabinet seem to be dice men. What we wouldn’t give for Devilfish running the Brexit negotiations.

Blundering through

Anyone who has ever dealt with McCain would have been saddened by the news that he is suffering from brain cancer, but his resilience almost makes you feel sorry for the tumour. McCain is undoubtedly the most media-friendly politician I have ever met. When I travelled on his plane in 2008, he took every question from the foreign press pack and made us feel welcome. Through him, I also met Steve Duprey, the former boss of the New Hampshire Republicans. He was fond of explaining Duprey’s first law: “In politics, before considering malevolence, always assume incompetence.” I have had much cause to remind myself of that over the past three years.

Paranoid android

If you are looking for a summer read, I recommend Jonathan Allen’s and Amie Parnes’s Shattered, a great insider account of Hillary Clinton’s disastrous 2016 presidential election effort. It shows how a flawed candidate with little ability to connect with the public presided over a paranoid regime of advisers engaged in Shakespearean bloodletting that led to them coming a cropper when fighting a charismatic populist. On second thoughts, you could always wait to read my second book this autumn. 

Tim Shipman is the political editor of the Sunday Times. “All Out War” is now available in paperback (William Collins)

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue