There are moments when you have to sit back and tip your hat to the sheer chutzpah of this Tory government.
They have made an art form of dressing up crass self-interest as high-minded reform, and mean-spirited division as One Nation inclusiveness. However, even by their standards, it was a breath-taking show of shamelessness for Iain Duncan Smith to announce that he was abolishing Britain’s mission to measure and tackle child poverty.
Ignoring the joint report produced only this week by the Childrens’ Commissioners of Wales, Scotland, England and Northern Ireland, into the ‘crippling effects’ of poverty on our nations’ children, Duncan Smith baldly declared the target unfit for purpose and announced that the Tories would not only be giving up on tackling child poverty, but also wouldn’t even bother to count the relative poverty of our kids. The decision to stop taking meaningful account of relative child poverty takes us out of step with all our European neighbours, who record child poverty in that way, little wonder the Royal Statistical Society have criticised the plans.
Labour’s benchmark for child poverty, which was actually voted for by Cameron and the Tories in opposition, established that children living in households with an income below 60 per cent of the UK average are living in poverty. This confirmed the measure that shows 2.3 million, or one in six children, are affected today across the whole of the UK. In Wales, the number is higher still, with one in five children falling below the line, a higher proportion than any part of Britain – apart from Inner City London.
These figures should make all of us hang our heads in shame – especially because it doesn’t have to be like this. The last Labour government showed that if you have a genuine determination to improve the lives of all children, then the numbers can fall dramatically. It was our zeal and passion for tackling poverty that ensures more than one million children were lifted out of poverty between 1997 and 2010.
Yet IDS and his cheerleaders argue that we don’t need to know these statistics, because ‘moving people back and forth across an arbitrary line’ produces ‘perverse policy incentives’. Well in Labour, we don’t think there is anything perverse about trying to measure and then to reduce the number of children living in poverty. Of course, if the Government can come up with better policies to meaningfully affect those rates, making the target redundant or irrelevant, then we would consider supporting them in those endeavours. But there is no evidence that they are achieving that objective. Even on a benign view of the latest statistics, child poverty is stagnating on average, while it grows in the more peripheral and post-industrial corners of our country.
Given that reality, there can be no real justification for scrapping the targets and burying the statistics. The only rationale, is the usual rationale: Tory self-interest. Everyone knows that this is just another example of what Lynton Crosby, the Tories’ Aussie gun-for-hire, calls ‘getting the barnacles off the boat’. The relative target of child poverty that was such an important rallying cry for the last Labour government is just a pain in the neck as far as this lot are concerned. It serves as an inconvenient reminder of their failure to increase the incomes of working people, even as the economy has started to grow.
This situation is set to get worse still, in next week’s budget, we can expect George Osborne to start fleshing out, in gory detail, where many of their proposed £12bn of welfare cuts will come from. Time and again they have refused to rule out cutting tax credits, creating fears that working families will see the financial rug pulled from beneath their feet and growing numbers of children pushed in to poverty.
The abolition of the child poverty target reveals the Tory desires to cut the poorest adrift from any boats that might be lifted by a rising economic tide. In so many other areas of policy, the Tories subscribe to the accountants’ slide rule of management by measurement, yet here, where measurement has proved so important, they choose to close their eyes.
Giving up the meaningful fight against child poverty doesn’t just rob children of a decent start in life – it steals from our nation the full potential of our people. Early years spent in poverty all too often ends up meaning worse results at school, a lower paid job and even ill health. As a small country, in a global race, we simply can’t afford to write of the potential of so many of the next generation before they’ve had the chance to make their own way in life.
Deep down IDS knows he is helping the government to give up on the problems of the poorest children in this country, in a bid to get himself out of a political problem. This is a depressing lesson in the importance of winning elections. Next time I’m asked the question on the doorstep, what’s the difference between Labour and the Tories, I can think of no sharper way to show that divide – the last Labour government lifted over one million children out of poverty, this Tory government doesn’t even think it’s worth trying.