Children grilling the Chancellor on television. Photo: Getty
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Autumn Statement: the prospect for children’s benefits looks no brighter

Since 2012, we haven’t seen a solitary reference to child poverty in any budget or Autumn Statement, and poverty rates are rising.

Today’s the day that speculation about the content of the Autumn Statement reaches its peak. Will the Chancellor announce new spending cuts in light of lower-than-expected tax receipts? Or conversely, be in the market for some pre-election giveaways? Trails apart, we don’t yet know for sure what will be in the speech at 12.30pm tomorrow. But we have a pretty good idea what won’t.

The Autumn Statement is conventionally when the government announces how it will maintain the value of benefits for the following fiscal year. But in 2014, there’s little to say on the topic. Sheltered by the terms of the triple lock, the basic state pension will automatically be uprated by average earnings, prices or a nominal 2.5 per cent, whichever is higher. This year it is the last, which gives a happy uplift to the value of pensions over and above the cost of living. In stark contrast, the value of children’s benefits is locked down, this time by a decision at Autumn Statement 2012 to uprate them at a sub-inflation 1 per cent for the following three years.

Actually, it’s even worse than that. Child benefit has suffered over the course of this parliament not just from the 2012 decision to increase it slower than inflation, but also by a three-year freeze instituted when the coalition took power. The benefit has lost over 13 per cent of its real value as a result of uprating decisions taken since 2010. But those with good memories will recall that the government provided a reason for cutting this vital and popular benefit.

As the government said at the time, “We will freeze child benefit to help fund significant above indexation increases in the child tax credit . . . This means that support will be better targeted at low-income families with children and that this budget will have no measurable impact on child poverty”.

So how has that worked in practice? In 2011, low income families did do well when the children’s element of child tax credit (CTC) was increased in line with prices, and given a further healthy boost of £180 a year. Child poverty actually went down that year. By 2012, the commitment to help low-income families was weakened: CTC was increased by inflation, but the Chancellor then reneged on his promise of a further significant increase above prices. That year, child poverty rates stayed the same. But by 2013, any idea of protecting poorer children from austerity had left the Treasury and shut the door: CTC could languish with 1 per cent uprating for the following three years along with the rest of them. Surprise, surprise: child poverty rates are now on the rise.

Academics have long pointed out that the extent to which we protect the value of children’s benefits is intimately linked with the rate of child poverty. This was something the Chancellor acknowledged in 2010, but has remained tight-lipped about ever since. In fact, since 2012 we haven’t seen a solitary reference to child poverty in any budget or Autumn Statement, nor any analysis in Treasury documents as to the poverty effects of spending decisions.  This goes beyond being simply depressing. When the government has an enduring legal duty to take action to reduce child poverty to negligible levels by 2020, it begins to look more like an act of avoidance.

Whatever next May brings, the prospect for children’s benefits looks no brighter. The Conservatives plan to freeze all support to families for another two years if returned to power; a Labour government would uprate child benefit at only 1 per cent for the same time period; and the Lib Dems have intimated that uprating decisions will be taken on an ad hoc basis as finances allow. The stable and poverty-reducing settlement the triple lock provides pensioners may be an unimaginable dream for children in the foreseeable future.

Uprating may seem tedious, but in truth it matters a lot. When children’s benefits are properly uprated, families don’t drift away from the mainstream; if their value withers away, we cut our children loose. When the Chancellor steps up to the despatch box tomorrow, we will all listen hard to every word he has to say. But spare a thought, too, for the issue on which he stays silent.

Lindsay Judge is Senior Policy and Research officer at the Child Poverty Action Group

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

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The beggar used to be friendly – now he was ranting at everyone

What was I doing, dismissing him with maximal curtness – and not caring?

The first beggar was walking but still wretched. Probably in his early twenties, clearly ravaged by more than just alcohol, he made a beeline for me, as if he had an appointment. He was not to know that I was in a mood from hell, though the look on my face would have told him, if he’d been in any kind of state to register it.

“Excuse me, have you got 10p for…”

“No.” And I walked on.

Why? I am almost invariably a soft touch for this kind of thing. But as I said, I was in the foulest of tempers.

Also, this was East Finchley. For those who do not know London, East Finchley is a northern suburb, which at one end hosts the wealthiest street in the country – the Bishops Avenue, where multimillionaires tear down houses and erect new ones even uglier than those they have replaced – and at the other end a typically seedy, dull collection of terraced houses.

The main supermarket is Budgens, a name so ungainly that it could only have belonged to a real person, either too proud or unimaginative to think of something else.

But what, I asked myself, was someone this wretched doing in East Finchley? And what was I doing, dismissing him with maximal curtness – and not caring?

The second beggar, further up the street, I met the next day: much older and clearly mad, rather than chemically poisoned. He asked how I was doing.

“Not so well, as it happens,” I replied.

“Would you like me to say a prayer for you?”

“Why not?” I said, and he placed a clenched fist to my forehead and made a brief incantation, something like an exorcism, and then kissed the large white plastic crucifix hanging from his neck.

I half-expected to feel a jolt of faith, some kind of divine restructuring. This time I gave him money: a pound coin and a 50p coin. But then later I thought: why didn’t I give him more? I’d been doing some tidying earlier and had retrieved a heavy pocketful of change; I could have given him a generous handful.

The third beggar was in Shepherd’s Bush. I knew him from the days when I lived there: a skinny, middle-aged guy who would occasionally stop and rant in a friendly way at me, just sane enough not to ignore. That was ten years ago. Now he was raging at everyone, accusing the teenagers queueing in the kebab shop of being batty boys and saying “bloodclaat” a lot. (Batty boy: homosexual. Bloodclaat: tampon.)

The people he was addressing knew perfectly well what he was saying. They shrugged it off. I got on the bus; so did he, and the whole bus knew about it. There was nothing friendly in him now, and I wondered through which hole in the increasingly threadbare welfare safety net he had been allowed to slip.

That’s it, I thought. I’m getting out of London, its pampered core oblivious to the surrounding anguish. The world in a nutshell. Luckily, my great friend S— had asked if I could cat-sit for her in Brighton. I know her cat, and I know Brighton. Also, I know about a dozen people there who I keep meaning to see, so why not? London was making me ill, and possibly a bad person. So S— invited me down a couple of days before she was due to go on her holidays, and I took the first train I could.

And now I find myself sitting on a sunlounger in a tiny backyard, in a charming house just abutting the North Laine, and the mood is palpably different to the capital’s. It is like a city ought to be: compact, diverse and funky. There is no reek of High Capitalism. It is healthily decadent. It would appear to be full of people who have rejected the idea of London. It still has an enormous number of beggars, but more people were dropping money for them than I ever saw do so in W1, W12 or N2.

So this is what it’s like to fall out of love with the city of one’s birth. What most surprised me was the speed and force with which it happened. I’d made my mind up over a nice lunch that my friend N— was buying me, to cheer me up.

“Don’t you have to stay in London? You know, for book launches and things like that?”

“I don’t go to fucking book launches any more,” I said. I was taken aback by the vigour of my reply. I’m only here for ten days but I have plenty of people to see and dozens of memories, all good, to bump into. I’m already feeling better. 

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 14 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The German problem