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2 December 2014

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.

By Lindsay Judge

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.

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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.

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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