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Could Universal Credit hold the key to tackling child poverty?

The troubled programme, if done right, could hold the keys to tackling child poverty. 

We discovered this morning that the proportion of children living in relative poverty is at its lowest level since the 1980s. Great news of course, but this headline masks a much more complicated – and worrying – picture.

Falls in this headline poverty measure – which captures those children living in households with incomes less than 60 per cent of the median – can be divided into two phases. Before the financial crisis, reductions owed much to a concerted policy focus and some sizeable spending on family policies. Tax credits in particular both incentivised single parents into work and provided a boost to incomes for low earners. At the same time an ever greater proportion of children in poverty were from working families.


Long term falls in relative child poverty and rise of in-work poverty

Notes: Estimates presented are on a Before Housing Cost basis


Once the crisis hit, relative poverty fell sharply. But this was only because the incomes at the median – the benchmark for this relative measure – were falling more quickly than those at the bottom. Absolute poverty – which is measured against a fixed income benchmark – rose in this period. The implication is that more of us were struggling, even as the headline poverty rate continued to fall. 


Since 2011 declines in the child poverty rate have slowed significantly. Rates may now be lower than at any time since the 1980s, but the long downward drift appears to have ended.

With a further £12 billion of cuts to working-age welfare planned over the next two years, the medium-term outlook for child poverty looks starker still. For example, our research has shown that a family could lose up to £1,700 a year as a result of the mooted £5 billion cut in child tax credits – two-thirds of the cut would be drawn from the incomes of the poorest 30 per cent of households.

So, if the government wants to be in a position to repeat its claim about falling child poverty rates over the rest of the parliament, what might it do?  Much of its emphasis has been on ‘taking the low paid out of tax’. Indeed, it is legislating to explicitly link the personal allowance (the point at which individuals start to pay income tax) to the earnings achieved when working 30 hours at the minimum wage. But this is a mis-sold policy if the focus is meant to be on low earners. Gains are overwhelmingly skewed towards better-off households, with roughly three-quarters going to those in the top half of the income distribution. The five million lowest paid earn too little to pay tax and will gain nothing from further tax cuts.

Increasingly the rhetoric from the government has focused on the need for employers to pay their staff more – reducing the burden on the state to pick up the pieces via in-work tax credits. This is certainly a useful approach. Action on the minimum wage and living wage would be welcome and could bring some modest fiscal savings. But the government appears to have its approach the wrong way round – floating the idea of cutting the generosity of tax credits on the assumption that this will somehow force employers’ hands. Yet our research found no evidence that tax credits act as a subsidy to employers. Simply cutting support is almost certain to do little more than take money away from those on the lowest incomes.

But there is one government programme which does have the potential to help in the fight against poverty: Universal Credit (UC). This flagship welfare reform programme is designed to make sure that work pays by boosting incentives and encouraging progression at work. The ambition has much to admire, but our recent review has shown that its current design is flawed and needs a major reboot if it is to fulfil its potential to raise living standards.

New work allowances – a key feature of UC that allow people to start working without having their benefits reduced – are expected to encourage more people into work. But weak incentives to earn more (workers can keep as little as 24 pence of each additional pound they earn) could lead to more parents becoming trapped at low levels of pay and a greater dependence on in-work support – the very outcome the government wants to prevent.

And while UC is very good at getting at least one person in a household into work, it is less effective at boosting employment within households – an important way to tackle in-work poverty. Our review has called for more support for second earners in couples with children to tackle this problem.

With some simple changes to the design of UC, significant strides could be taken in boosting employment and the earnings of low income families. The current dichotomy, with cuts to both tax and benefits, risks creating a two-tier system, in which the low paid are left ever further behind, stuck in poverty and held back from sharing in future growth. A rebalancing of the incentives UC creates – to better support single parents and second earners in couples with children – would provide a clear route to improved living standards.

David Finch is senior economic analyst at the Resolution Foundation. 

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Do you see yourself as British or English? The answer could help define modern politics

The rise of English identity has left a glaring space in politics for an English nationalist party. Who is going to fill it?

Political scientists call it the “Moreno question”. In the 1980s, the Spanish academic Luis Moreno Fernández came up with a test for identity, which was originally applied to gauge interest in Catalan independence. In its English incarnation, it asks voters to grade themselves from “I feel more British than English” to “I feel more English than British”. Unsurprisingly, Ukip does best among those who describe themselves as “English, not British”, while Labour’s vote rises the more people see themselves as British. In the biggest group – the 47 per cent who see themselves as equally English and British – the Tories lead.

The Moreno question helps us make sense of three interlinking trends in modern politics. First, the stark fact that in the 2015 election, a different party won in each nation of the United Kingdom: Labour in Wales, the SNP in Scotland, the Tories in England and the Democratic Unionist Party in Northern Ireland. Second, Ukip’s lack of success north of the border: the Herald reported in July that Ukip’s only elected representative in the country, David Coburn MEP, had been forced to take on the role of treasurer at his local branch in Fife because it has so few members. Third, Labour’s declining performance in its historic northern heartlands. Many voters there want a party with a distinctively English flavour and don’t feel that Labour is it.

Devolution has had many unexpected consequences, but the rise of an English identity is one of the least explored. Because of its demographic dominance, mainstream politicians have long argued that it would be unfair to give England its own parliament. Labour is particularly resistant to the idea because it would magnify the Conservatives’ power. As it is, the principle of “English votes for English laws” will exclude the SNP and Plaid Cymru from the grand committee-stage hearings on grammar schools, because education is a devolved matter.

However, the last general election showed that there’s a problem with English voters feeling ignored. In Worcester, the Tory MP Robin Walker told me in April 2015 that arguments about the SNP holding Labour to ransom cut through on the doorstep. “There is a real concern if [voters] are saying, ‘The proceeds of the mansion tax are all going to go on nurses in Scotland. That doesn’t help us,’” he said. Many English voters felt that the SNP would be a successful lobby group at Westminster for Scotland’s interests. Where was their equivalent?

For John Denham, the former Labour MP who now leads the Centre for English Identity and Politics at the University of Winchester, the same dynamic applied this summer in the EU referendum campaign. “Scotland got ‘Scotland Stronger in Europe’,” he tells me. “England had to put up with ‘Britain Stronger in Europe’. That was an elite campaign run by people who think Britain and England are the same thing.”

Once again, the Moreno question helps us understand a fundamental divide among English voters. Denham says that 80 per cent of people who defined themselves as “English only” voted Leave, while 80 per cent of those who called themselves “British only” voted Remain.

Denham thinks that this presents an enormous challenge for Labour in northern seats where Ukip is in second place, given that its intellectuals and leading politicians feel so squeamish about Englishness. “If Labour continues as a cosmopolitan, liberal party that doesn’t want anything to do with the politics of identity,” he warns, “it won’t reach those voters.”

Other politicians worry that if Labour doesn’t occupy this space, another party will. “As nationalists go, the SNP is pretty good,” a senior left-wing politician told me recently. “An English nationalist party could be something altogether more nasty.”

In this light, the election of Diane James as the leader of Ukip looks like a rare stroke of luck for Labour. She is a southerner, educated at Rochester Grammar School, and an MEP for south-east England. Although she is polished and professional – albeit prone to outbursts of admiration for Vladimir Putin – she seems unlikely to appeal on an emotional level to working-class white voters in the north, where the greatest potential for an English nationalist party lies. Thanks to Ukip’s Caligulan internal politics, the deputy leader, Paul Nuttall (from Bootle), did not stand and the charismatic Steven Woolfe (from Burnage) was excluded from the race after the party’s executive committee ruled that he had submitted his nomination papers 17 minutes after the deadline. (Another potential candidate, Suzanne Evans, was suspended by the party, and pretty much everyone else in Ukip seems to hate its only MP, Douglas Carswell.)

If not Labour, or Ukip, perhaps the Conservatives? Theresa May’s rebranding of the party, complete with articles on bringing back grammar schools in the Daily Mail, shows that she is pitching for Ukip-leaners. “In terms of language and biography, she has a better understanding of that struggling, socially conservative, English nationalist voter than Cameron did,” says Robert Ford, a professor of political science at Manchester University and co-author of Revolt on the Right. He believes that any party that thinks a simple economic message can sway these voters is underestimating the “emotive” nature of identity-based politics. “It’s no use going to Sunderland and saying, ‘We’re going to nationalise the trains,’ and thinking, ‘They’ll come back to us.’”

There is another option. A new party could be born, perhaps even out of the ashes of post-referendum Ukip: Arron Banks, its mega-donor, has said that he fancies the idea. With the right leader, nationalist sentiment could spread like wildfire among the “English, not British”. And, as Nigel Farage has shown, you don’t need to get elected to Westminster to have an effect.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times