Rochdale's Failinge estate, where 4 out of 5 children live in poverty. Photo: Christopher Furlong/Getty Image
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While the government officially abolishes child poverty, things are getting worse

At a stroke, the Government is about to abolish the concept, if not the reality, of child and working poverty. But a crisis is looming.

If the Government goes ahead with its plans to redefine child poverty then it will be turning its backs on poor children and on the past.

No redefinition can hide the reality that the Government’s child poverty strategy is failing.  It was only a year ago that Iain Duncan Smith was claiming the child poverty targets would be met but last week’s child poverty statistics showed that absolute child poverty has risen by half a million since 2010 and that progress on relative poverty has stalled.

Picking up from the hints dropped by the Prime Minister last week, Iain Duncan Smith’s statement to MPs on Wednesday made clear the Government’s intention to scrap the four statutory measures of child poverty – relative poverty, absolute poverty, persistent poverty and material deprivation and the targets to end child poverty.

The Government claims that having a poverty line based on 60% of median incomes, as we have now, led previous governments to tackle child poverty via  a ‘poverty plus a pound’ approach where extra benefit and tax credit spending was used to move people just below to just over the poverty line. A case decisively disproved by the IFS in 2010.

The progress made was actually down to the kind of broad approach that CPAG and other charities insisted upon. While the evidence is clear that the extra investment in tax credits and child benefit made a huge difference to low-income families and led to increased spending on fruit, vegetables, children’s clothing and books and less on cigarettes and alcohol - and there is strong evidence that the link between low income and poor child outcomes is causal - it is also true,that one-quarter of the fall in child poverty between 1997 and 2010 was due to the rise from 45-57% in lone-parent employment.

In fact, the Child Poverty Act which the Government is looking to effectively repeal actually requires  child poverty strategies to consider: parental employment, skills, information and advice, physical and mental health, education, childcare, social services, housing, the built environment and social inclusion - the essential ‘life chances’ building blocks set alongside the targets.

The relative poverty measure we use is a common-sense measure used by the OECD and the EU:  everyone recognises that poverty is first and foremost about a lack of money. This is as close as you get to a dictionary definition of poverty.

If the proposals to scrap the existing measures and targets and replace them with measures on worklessness and educational attainment go ahead then what the Government means when it talks about poverty will be confused and confusing.

What’s wrong with looking at worklessness and attainment? Nothing – except we won’t be talking poverty. Nor will we be measuring poverty if we look at the preferred indicators likely to be flagged up by Ministers. For example, whilst family breakdown and drug and alcohol addiction may increase the risk of poverty, they are also experienced by people higher up the income scale and problem debt may be a consequence of poverty, but is not the same as poverty.

The absurdity of this approach is best seen when we looking at working poverty.

Children are much more likely to be in poverty because they have a parent who is a security guard or a cleaner than one who is an alcohol or drug addict. Nearly two thirds of poor children live in working families. All this is pretty inconvenient for a Government reportedly eyeing up tax credits for more cuts.

As it stands it looks like these children will no longer figure in government measures. At a stroke, the Government is about to abolish the concept, if not the reality, of child and working poverty. Lacking money or being in work will mean you no longer count as poor.

This is public policy going through the looking glass. Nothing will be quite what it seems.

All this is desperately disappointing. Five years ago we had a cross-party consensus on child poverty. It comes less than a decade after the Prime Minister and Iain Duncan-Smith repudiated the Tory Governments of the 1980s for ignoring relative poverty.

Reflecting on the rapid rise in child poverty in the 1980s, a report by Iain Duncan Smith said: “The growth of child poverty on the relative measure was particularly alarming….this huge increase in income inequality has been rightly described as “one of the biggest social changes in Britain since the Second World War.”  

He was right. Whatever ministers call it, unless they act to solve the root causes, not switch off the warning light flashing red, the looming child poverty crisis threatens to reshape society by limiting the lives and life chances of this generation of children. 

Alison Garnham is the CEO of Child Poverty Action Group

Alison Garnham is chief executive of the Child Poverty Action Group

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Workers' rights after Brexit? It's radio silence from the Tories

Theresa May promised to protect workers after leaving the EU. 

In her speech on Tuesday, Theresa May repeated her promise to “ensure that workers’ rights are fully protected and maintained".  It left me somewhat confused.

Last Friday, my bill to protect workers’ rights after Brexit was due to be debated and voted on in the House of Commons. Instead I sat and watched several Tory MPs speak about radios for more than four hours.

The Prime Minister and her Brexit Secretary, David Davis, have both previously made a clear promise in their speeches at Conservative Party conference to maintain all existing workers’ rights after Britain has left the European Union. Mr Davis even accused those who warned that workers’ rights may be put at risk of “scaremongering". 

My Bill would simply put the Prime Minister’s promise into law. Despite this fact, Conservative MPs showed their true colours and blocked a vote on it through filibustering - speaking for so long that the time runs out.

This included the following vital pieces of information being shared:

David Nuttall is on his second digital radio, because the first one unfortunately broke; Rebecca Pow really likes elephant garlic (whatever that is); Jo Churchill keeps her radio on a high shelf in the kitchen; and Seema Kennedy likes radio so much, she didn’t even own a television for a long time. The bill they were debating wasn’t opposed by Labour, so they could have stopped and called a vote at any point.

This practice isn’t new, but I was genuinely surprised that the Conservatives decided to block this bill.

There is nothing in my bill which would prevent Britain from leaving the EU.  I’ve already said that when the vote to trigger Article 50 comes to Parliament, I will vote for it. There is also nothing in the bill which would soften Brexit by keeping us tied to the EU. While I would personally like to see rights in the workplace expanded and enhanced, I limited the bill to simply maintaining what is currently in place, in order to make it as agreeable as possible.

So how can Theresa May's words be reconciled with the actions of her backbenchers on Friday? Well, just like when Lionel Hutz explains to Marge in the Simpsons that "there's the truth, and the truth", there are varying degrees to which the government can "protect workers' rights".

Brexit poses three immediate risks:

First, if the government were to repeal the European Communities Act without replacing it, all rights introduced to the UK through that piece of legislation would fall away, including parental leave, the working time directive, and equal rights for part-time and agency workers. The government’s Great Repeal Bill will prevent this from happening, so in that sense they will be "protecting workers’ rights".

However, the House of Commons Library has said that the Great Repeal Bill will leave those rights in secondary legislation, rather than primary legislation. While Britain is a member of the EU, there is only ever scope to enhance and extend rights over and above what had been agreed at a European level. After Brexit, without the floor of minimum rights currently provided by the EU, any future government could easily chip away at these protections, without even the need for a vote in Parliament, through what’s called a "statutory instrument". It will leave workers’ rights hanging by a thread.

The final change that could occur after we have left the EU is European Court rulings no longer applying in this country. There are a huge number of rulings which have furthered rights and increased wages for British workers - from care workers who do sleep-in shifts being paid for the full shift, not just the hours they’re awake; to mobile workers being granted the right to be paid for their travel time. These rulings may no longer have legal basis in Britain after we’ve left. 

My bill would have protected rights against all three of these risks. The government have thus far only said how they will protect against the first.

We know that May opposed the introduction of many of these rights as a backbencher and shadow minister; and that several of her Cabinet ministers have spoken about their desire to reduce employment protections, one even calling for them to be halved last year. The government has even announced it is looking at removing the right to strike from transport workers, which would contradict their May’s promise to protect workers’ rights before we’ve even left the EU.

The reality is that the Conservatives have spent the last six years reducing people’s rights at work - from introducing employment tribunal fees which are a barrier to justice for many, to their attack on workers’ ability to organise in the Trade Union Act. A few lines in May’s speech doesn’t undo the scepticism working people have about the Tories' intentions in this area. Until she puts her money where her mouth is, nor should they. 

Melanie Onn is the Labour MP for Great Grimsby.