Gordon Brown’s child poverty warning exposes how much the state has shrunk

Government priorities have changed drastically.

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A “generation of invisible girls and boys” is a result of the government’s failure to tackle child poverty, according to Gordon Brown.

The former Labour Prime Minister, who is credited with the significant fall in children poverty as chancellor during the New Labour years, is warning that the rapidly rising level of children in poverty is reaching “epidemic proportions”.

In a speech at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, Brown will attack the government for neglecting a “national disgrace” where “the prospects for nearly half a generation of children are in tatters”.

Research by the Resolution Foundation think tank finds tax credits introduced by Labour reduced the number of children in poverty from three million to 1.6 million (from 1998-2010). Brown argues that the Conservatives’ cuts to tax credits and benefits are reversing this progress.

Citing a Scottish government report showing a sharp rise in child poverty – set to double by 2027 (since 2010) – Brown warns that this trend will go UK-wide and is “accelerating out of control with child benefit and other child support still frozen or falling in value”.

Indeed, the same analysis by the Resolution Foundation shows the proportion of children in poverty has grown by 21 per cent between 2011 and 2016, and child poverty is projected to have increased last year by around 3 per cent – driven by benefit cuts that hit low-income families hardest, including the 3 per cent real-terms reduction in the value of tax credits and child benefit.

As the former Downing Street and Treasury adviser Dan Corry wrote in the Guardian last month, Conservative welfare reductions have largely led to this rise:

“By definition, children are in poverty because their families don’t have enough income: give them money through tax credits, targeted financial support, and increasing child benefit and you will have impacts.”

Yet even more sinister is Corry’s observation that the whole concept of reducing child poverty has fallen off the agenda of successive governments since the coalition took power in 2010 – and this has been reflected by it slipping down the opposition’s priority list, and falling out of British political conversation altogether.

This is in contrast with child poverty being New Labour’s key focus: Tony Blair’s famous commitment to ending it within a generation, for example, and anti-poverty policies like the National Minimum Wage, Sure Start centres, and significant increases in education and childcare spending.

Not only has concern about child poverty slipped out of the political landscape, tackling it is becoming an impossibility. Austerity has had such a drastic effect on the size of the state (councils have lost 49 per cent of real-term funding from central government since 2010) that local authorities and clinical commissioning groups are no longer able to protect children’s services.

In the last couple of years, local budgets for children’s services that have – until now – remained untouched (for everything from Sure Start centres to respite centres for children with disabilities) are losing funding, as councils try to balance their books with no extra central government cash on the horizon.

“It’s only been in the last couple of years that we’ve been more concerned at the cuts that have started to fall on children’s services,” says the solicitor Caroline Barrett, who specialises in public law cases against cuts to services. “[Councils] try to protect children’s services for as long as possible but in the last couple of years those have started to be cut.”

Now that children’s services are no longer deemed sacred, there is increasingly little parents – hit by benefit reductions and wage stagnation – can fall back on locally for their children.

According to the National Audit Office, Sure Start budgets in England were reduced by 50 per cent between 2010 and 2017 – research by the Sutton Trust shows 1,000 children’s centres may have closed (double the official figure) since 2010.

Although this is seen as having a greater impact on social mobility than poverty levels, it further decreases the options and places to turn for parents with reduced household incomes. When I reported on children’s centre closures earlier this year, parents told me they’d have little choice but to stop working.

A funding gap in children’s social care (which will reach £2bn by 2020, according to the Local Government Association) means councils are exceeding their budgets to protect vulnerable children – totalling an overspend of £605m last year – as provision for early intervention dwindles.

While Brown laments the welfare overhaul that undid his work on child poverty, the overall shrinking of the state means children will need a lot more than a reversal of benefit cuts now to escape the rising risk of poverty.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.