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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
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PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn prompts Tory outrage as he blames Grenfell Tower fire on austerity

To Conservative cries of "shame on you!", the Labour leader warned that "we all pay a price in public safety" for spending cuts.

A fortnight after the Grenfell Tower fire erupted, the tragedy continues to cast a shadow over British politics. Rather than probing Theresa May on the DUP deal, Jeremy Corbyn asked a series of forensic questions on the incident, in which at least 79 people are confirmed to have died.

In the first PMQs of the new parliament, May revealed that the number of buildings that had failed fire safety tests had risen to 120 (a 100 per cent failure rate) and that the cladding used on Grenfell Tower was "non-compliant" with building regulations (Corbyn had asked whether it was "legal").

After several factual questions, the Labour leader rose to his political argument. To cries of "shame on you!" from Tory MPs, he warned that local authority cuts of 40 per cent meant "we all pay a price in public safety". Corbyn added: “What the tragedy of Grenfell Tower has exposed is the disastrous effects of austerity. The disregard for working-class communities, the terrible consequences of deregulation and cutting corners." Corbyn noted that 11,000 firefighters had been cut and that the public sector pay cap (which Labour has tabled a Queen's Speech amendment against) was hindering recruitment. "This disaster must be a wake-up call," he concluded.

But May, who fared better than many expected, had a ready retort. "The cladding of tower blocks did not start under this government, it did not start under the previous coalition governments, the cladding of tower blocks began under the Blair government," she said. “In 2005 it was a Labour government that introduced the regulatory reform fire safety order which changed the requirements to inspect a building on fire safety from the local fire authority to a 'responsible person'." In this regard, however, Corbyn's lack of frontbench experience is a virtue – no action by the last Labour government can be pinned on him. 

Whether or not the Conservatives accept the link between Grenfell and austerity, their reluctance to defend continued cuts shows an awareness of how politically vulnerable they have become (No10 has announced that the public sector pay cap is under review).

Though Tory MP Philip Davies accused May of having an "aversion" to policies "that might be popular with the public" (he demanded the abolition of the 0.7 per cent foreign aid target), there was little dissent from the backbenches – reflecting the new consensus that the Prime Minister is safe (in the absence of an attractive alternative).

And May, whose jokes sometimes fall painfully flat, was able to accuse Corbyn of saying "one thing to the many and another thing to the few" in reference to his alleged Trident comments to Glastonbury festival founder Michael Eavis. But the Labour leader, no longer looking fearfully over his shoulder, displayed his increased authority today. Though the Conservatives may jeer him, the lingering fear in Tory minds is that they and the country are on divergent paths. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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