Labour's broken promise

Barnardo's chief Martin Narey on how Gordon Brown abandoned a pledge to halve child poverty by 2010

Children in poverty paid for the inheritance tax giveaway. Labour should be ashamed.

After 23 years working with offenders, almost all from disadvantaged backgrounds, I was keen - when I left the Home Office to join Barnardo's two years ago - to make the reduction of UK child poverty our campaigning priority.

Sensible people warned me against this and told me that people in Britain - and, crucially, the media - simply don't acknowledge child poverty, believing essentially that poor children exist only in Africa. The fact is that, by the government's own figures, 3.8 million children are living in poverty in Britain. Since 1999, Labour has steadily reduced that figure by more than half a million. But last year numbers rose again by 200,000.

I thought Barnardo's could change this and we set about demonstrating that, far from being relative, as poverty in the UK is invariably but unfortunately described, child poverty in the UK is very real, very deep, utterly demoralising, increasingly difficult to escape from and, for the fourth- or fifth-richest country in the world, shameful.

There has been no lack of will among charities and bodies such as the TUC to work together to change this. A 90-organisation-strong coalition - the Campaign to End Child Poverty - has tried to prompt what the Fabians have called a revolution in empathy about children and poverty in the UK. And all the signs are that we have failed. Indeed, all the signs are that our hope for some investment from the 9 October pre-Budget report (PBR) fell victim to a more urgent need: to slash inheritance tax, ensuring that some of the richest children in the UK would be richer still in years to come.

Twelve months ago, many of us were more optimistic. At the party conferences, we were encouraged to believe that a Brown government - with Ed Balls in an influential position - would be keen, and quickly, to commit itself to meeting Tony Blair's courageous 1999 commitment to halve UK child poverty by 2010.

We were also encouraged to believe that Labour would be pressed to do so by a Conservative Party talking seriously about inequality. Oliver Letwin, then shadow chancellor, committed the Tories to match Labour's pledge to the 2010 target.

This year, the party conferences were very different. The fringe is pretty demanding of ministers and shadow ministers. So, rather than deluge them with a multitude of requests to speak about poverty, all the members of End Child Poverty came together to make just one appeal: this year, we asked for a brief appearance and a five-minute speech at an ECP reception. Menzies Campbell appeared for the Liberal Democrats; Ed Balls, but also Peter Hain and Caroline Flint, the responsible junior minister at the Department for Work and Pensions, appeared for Labour.

David Cameron turned us down for the Tories. Fair enough - but so did Michael Gove. Only when we pressured Cameron's office about the likelihood of the Conservatives having no senior political figure at the reception were we offered Chris Grayling, the shadow for Work and Pensions. He turned up only shortly before 11pm, made a poor speech, and within minutes of arriving was being impatiently called away by aides who wanted him to join them at the next bar.

So we knew that, once again, our hopes lay with Labour. Ed Balls had been encouraging at their party conference, telling us to watch out for Gordon Brown's speech the next day. We did, and that was also encouraging, the Prime Minister insisting he wanted "no child left behind" and emphatically recommitting Labour not simply to halving child poverty by 2010, but to eradicating it in a generation.

We have told Labour repeatedly that to meet the target would need an investment, between now and 2010, of £3.8bn - and then the same sum again every year: a huge figure, unless one considers two things. First, that such a sum, amounting to less than two-thirds of 1 per cent of public expenditure, is much more affordable than it sounds. We shall spend £9bn on the London Olympics before 2012. Last year the nation spent £10bn on champagne and this year the City has found £14bn to spend on bonuses.

Second, that the return would be dramatic: nearly a million children taken out of grinding poverty. Which means, for example, that a family of two parents and two children, on benefits and after housing costs, has to survive not just one week, but every week, on £200. Such poverty reduces not only life chances for the poorest, but also life expectancy.

While in some parts of the UK, life expectancy at birth climbs towards the mid-eighties, life expectancy in the East End of Glasgow, at about 54 years, is now lower than life expectancy in North Korea or on the Gaza Strip.

I didn't expect the PBR to announce measures to bring the full million out of poverty, but none of us believed it would do no more than arrest half of last year's increase in the numbers in poverty.

Certainly, such a modest gesture could not have been behind Balls's optimism at the Labour conference. I can only conclude that a more substantial investment in children fell victim to the need to steal the Tories' clothes on inheritance tax and to relieve the tax burden on the richest 6 per cent of UK families. For millions of poor children, this is a tragedy.

Tony Blair's pledge to halve child poverty by 2010 was one of the most moving and inspiring commitments made in the optimistic days after 1997. With this year's PBR, it was abandoned. And nobody cares.

This article first appeared in the 22 October 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Who’s afraid of Michael Moore?