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David Cameron's attempts to move the goalposts on poverty are a disaster - but don't take my word for it

You can't define away poverty - and David Cameron himself has admitted that. 

Ben Jennings/Child Poverty Action Group

The failure of the Government’s child poverty approach must not be compounded by moving the goalposts. 

Tomorrow morning sees the publication of what are likely to be grim child poverty figures for 2013-14. IFS projections suggest child poverty rose by 300,000 in that year.

But even if the figures are significantly better than expected, it’s clear the government is nowhere near meeting its child poverty targets. It is only a year since Iain Duncan Smith said he was on track to end child poverty by 2020 and it was only in March that the Chancellor claimed child poverty has fallen since 2010. 

It’s in this context that we should view the speculation that tomorrow the government will respond to the rising child poverty figures by counting something else instead.  It is reported ministers will look to replace the relative income measure with indicators on worklessness, family breakdown, problem debt, and drug and alcohol dependency. Here are five reasons why we should retain the current income measures on child poverty.


  • The poverty measures we use in the UK are common-sense measures:  everyone recognises that poverty is first and foremost about a lack of money. Worklessness, family breakdown, drug and alcohol addiction may increase the risk of poverty, and problem debt may be a consequence of poverty, but they are not the same as poverty.  
  • The four separate measures of child poverty encoded in the Child Poverty Act 2010 (relative poverty, absolute poverty, material deprivation and persistent poverty) are national statistics and the standard measures used internationally (OECD, EU).
  • The relative poverty measure represents a long-standing consensus about the meaning of poverty in a wealthy country i.e. that poverty is not just about the basics (food, shelter etc) but also about having enough money to participate in society.
  • The relative measure tells us how many children live at an unacceptable distance from the mainstream – it’s the best metric we have for ‘we’re all in it together’. When the living standards of the mainstream drop, but we do the right thing and protect the incomes of those at the bottom, then relative child poverty will drop. When average household incomes go up, but those at the bottom don’t share in these gains, child poverty will go up. That may seem counter-intuitive but what the measure tells us is whether we are doing right or wrong by the most vulnerable in society.
  • But we also put the information from the relative measure together with that from other measures: absolute poverty (which tells us about the erosion of living standards for low income families over time); material deprivation (which tells us how low income translates into reality through a lack of goods and opportunities); and persistent poverty (which tells us how many children live in poverty over a long period of time).


However, perhaps the best reason was articulated in the Scarman Lecture in 2006:

Even if we are not destitute, we still experience poverty if we cannot afford things that society regards as essential. The fact that we do not suffer the conditions of a hundred years ago is irrelevant.

In the nineteenth century Lord Macaulay pointed out that the poor of his day lived lives of far greater material prosperity than the greatest noblemen of the Tudor period. But as Dickens observed, the poor of those days were still poor. Fifty years from today, people will be considered poor if they don't have something which hasn't even been invented yet. So poverty is relative - and those who pretend otherwise are wrong.”

Who gave that lecture? One David Cameron.


Alison Garnham is chief executive of the Child Poverty Action Group

Photo: Getty Images
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The buck doesn't stop with Grant Shapps - and probably shouldn't stop with Lord Feldman, either

The question of "who knew what, and when?" shouldn't stop with the Conservative peer.

If Grant Shapps’ enforced resignation as a minister was intended to draw a line under the Mark Clarke affair, it has had the reverse effect. Attention is now shifting to Lord Feldman, who was joint chair during Shapps’  tenure at the top of CCHQ.  It is not just the allegations of sexual harrassment, bullying, and extortion against Mark Clarke, but the question of who knew what, and when.

Although Shapps’ resignation letter says that “the buck” stops with him, his allies are privately furious at his de facto sacking, and they are pointing the finger at Feldman. They point out that not only was Feldman the senior partner on paper, but when the rewards for the unexpected election victory were handed out, it was Feldman who was held up as the key man, while Shapps was given what they see as a relatively lowly position in the Department for International Development.  Yet Feldman is still in post while Shapps was effectively forced out by David Cameron. Once again, says one, “the PM’s mates are protected, the rest of us shafted”.

As Simon Walters reports in this morning’s Mail on Sunday, the focus is turning onto Feldman, while Paul Goodman, the editor of the influential grassroots website ConservativeHome has piled further pressure on the peer by calling for him to go.

But even Feldman’s resignation is unlikely to be the end of the matter. Although the scope of the allegations against Clarke were unknown to many, questions about his behaviour were widespread, and fears about the conduct of elections in the party’s youth wing are also longstanding. Shortly after the 2010 election, Conservative student activists told me they’d cheered when Sadiq Khan defeated Clarke in Tooting, while a group of Conservative staffers were said to be part of the “Six per cent club” – they wanted a swing big enough for a Tory majority, but too small for Clarke to win his seat. The viciousness of Conservative Future’s internal elections is sufficiently well-known, meanwhile, to be a repeated refrain among defenders of the notoriously opaque democratic process in Labour Students, with supporters of a one member one vote system asked if they would risk elections as vicious as those in their Tory equivalent.

Just as it seems unlikely that Feldman remained ignorant of allegations against Clarke if Shapps knew, it feels untenable to argue that Clarke’s defeat could be cheered by both student Conservatives and Tory staffers and the unpleasantness of the party’s internal election sufficiently well-known by its opponents, without coming across the desk of Conservative politicians above even the chair of CCHQ’s paygrade.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.