In the words of the Sergeant Pepper song, ’It was twenty years ago today…’, on 18 March 1999, that the British government pledged to be the first to end child poverty in a generation. By 2010, there were 1.1 million fewer children in poverty. We proved once and for all that child poverty is policy-responsive, that it can be cut, and we were half way to showing it could be eliminated. Half-way, that is, to the target to get down to 10 per cent - a target we were on track to achieve by March 2020. And in March 2010 the Child Poverty Act achieved Royal Assent with all parties signing up to the continued effort to achieve this target.
Progress was achieved through a combination of policies. The first childcare strategy and Childcare Act in 2006; welfare-to-work support, for example through the new deal for lone parents - a voluntary scheme which doubled lone parents’ chances of getting a job; the introduction of a national minimum wage, tax credits and improvements to child benefit; and a cross-government strategy to focus on eliminating child poverty, for example through a focus on child health, on the educational achievement gap and ‘Every child matters’. Lone parent employment participation grew from 45 per cent to 57 per cent and continued to rise thereafter to 68 per cent - a social revolution that may now be at risk due to cuts to support for single parents in universal credit.
What has been happening since? Since 2010, deficit reduction policies have set us on a different course. By 2021, we will be cutting £40 billion a year from our work and pensions budget through cuts and freezes to tax credits and benefits and, as a result, we have put all progress into reverse. While pensioners have been protected, we have exposed families with children to the cold winds of austerity and those in low-paid work have suffered the biggest losses. Since 2012, child poverty has risen by 500,000 and projections show we can expect a further one million children in poverty by 2021. The Resolution Foundation warns that by the end of this parliament we could have the highest child poverty rates we have ever seen in the UK, since data was first collected in the 1960s. We will see whether this upward trend continues when the new poverty figures come out on 28 March.
The metrics all parties signed up to have since been disputed and the Child Poverty Act abolished. This, despite David Cameron’s personal commitment in his 2006 Scarman lecture that ‘the Conservative Party recognises, will measure and will act on relative poverty’. Instead, today, the government repeatedly reports absolute poverty figures showing progress against a fixed poverty line dated back in 2010, while ignoring the evidence that the number of children living under the contemporary, relative poverty line (which shows whether in fact we are all in it together), is rising rapidly. The relative poverty line is the line against which all previous governments have been judged (since its introduction by the Thatcher government back in the 1980s). This is not a good look.
Evidence on the ground from frontline professionals like teachers, paediatricians and housing association workers shows deeply worrying experiences of child hunger, family deprivation, inadequate clothing, poor housing, rent arrears, debt and increasing homelessness. All the signs are there to back up what the data is showing. As a society, we need to sit up and take notice. It doesn’t have to be like this. Just one example, universal credit is perfectly capable of being reformed so it is once again poverty-reducing, as it was when originally conceived. What we are lacking is political will. Last week, the Chancellor missed a golden opportunity to end the benefit freeze which could have set us back on the right track. When John Major, back in the mid-1990s, rescued child benefit from withering on the vine, child poverty started to fall. We need comparable decisive action now.
In his Beveridge lecture at Toynbee Hall on 18 March 1999, Tony Blair said: ‘I will set out our historic aim that ours is the first generation to end child poverty for ever, and it will take a generation. It is a 20 year mission but I believe it can be done.’ He was right, it can be done, and in the UK we have proved it. We can end child poverty – it will take the right policies and a national commitment – we have shown it can be done before and we need a cross-party commitment to set our minds to doing it once again.