This blog first appeared on the New Statesman on 7th December 2015.
Now you see it… Now you don’t. The government’s rustled up a party trick for the kids this Christmas. They’re going to make 3.7 million of them disappear.
Britain’s children aren’t going anywhere, of course, particularly those who are growing up poor. But with a legislative sleight of hand, the government plans to quietly give up on the targets to end child poverty enshrined (with cross-party support) in the Child Poverty Act 2010.
And with it, they’re hoping to magic away any mention of child poverty at all. The Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission will become the Social Mobility Commission. The Child Poverty Act will become the Life Chances Act.
All this is more than a little politically convenient. Apart from a solitary BBC Today programme interview with Iain Duncan Smith last year, which left presenter Evan Davis audibly flabbergasted, not even the Government claims it is on track to meet the child poverty targets.
Indeed, the latest available projections, from the Resolution Foundation, warn child poverty will rise from 2.3m children to 3.3m by 2020 - a figure that will be even higher once the poverty-producing impact of the Summer Budget and the Autumn Statement is totted up.
Ministers, of course, would claim that it is simply a gigantic coincidence that as benefit cuts reduce the incomes of the poorest, they want to scrap poverty measures based on income. They claim they just prefer the proposed new measures of children’s ‘life chances’: whether their parents are in work or not and how well they do at GCSE. Those things matter, no one denies it – but the inconvenient truth is that money also matters and it needs to be measured. Any parent trying to raise their kids in poverty could tell them that (and 88 per cent of the public would agree with them). As would the professionals including doctors and teachers, working with and for children and families, who signed today’s letter in the Guardian.
Rebecca is one of those parents. She and her husband work full-time and life is easier than it was in the past, but she still struggles: “I try not to let my children know we are poor. But I dread them needing new shoes, or a letter home about a school trip. Winter is especially hard. After new uniforms in September, it’s Christmas and finding money to keep the heating on.”
What families like Rebecca’s need is action to end child poverty. Not magic tricks or bedtime stories. Rebecca has launched a petition to call for the House of Lords to block the changes that will scrap the target to end child poverty. She says: “If poverty measures are solely based on parents working and achievement at GCSE level then no one will know about children like mine who grow up missing out on things their friends take for granted. Children in poverty already feel poor and disadvantaged, why should they also be unnoticed?”
In short, the Government needs to mount precisely the kind of ‘all-out assault on poverty’ David Cameron promised in his party conference speech in October. It’s the same thing he promised on his first day as leader of the opposition, exactly ten years ago today: ‘the test for our policies will not be how they affect the better off, but how they help the worst-off in our country’. The kind of promise that brought him to government in the first place, with his new brand of compassionate Conservatism. And a promise that he repeated at the first cabinet meeting after this year’s election, when he told his ministers they should aim to "give everyone" in the UK "the chance to make the most of their life”.
So many promises. So little of the action that would address child poverty and make life easier for families: affordable rents, benefits that adequately topped up family incomes to cover the extra costs children bring and affordable childcare that fits around parents’ lives for children of all ages. Instead, all we’ve had are some tired magic tricks.