- by Alison Garnham
- Chief Executive
- Child Poverty Action Group
For campaigners, lobbying on bills can often be a frustrating experience. You can have all the arguments, evidence and esteemed experts on your side, but if ministers don’t want to do something, then it’s very hard to make them do it.
So, we were delighted at the end of last month when sustained campaigning since last summer by the Child Poverty Action Group and others paid off. Following a defeat in the House of Lords, the Government announced that the Welfare Reform and Work Bill would be amended to include a statutory duty to publish child poverty statistics based on existing measures in the Child Poverty Act.
The Bill itself scraps legally binding targets to eradicate child poverty, which had been agreed just five years previously. Along with the targets would go the government’s duty to report annually on child poverty, and the requirement for national and local anti-poverty strategies. Campaigners, who five years earlier had celebrated the passing of the Child Poverty Act with cross-party consensus, reeled.
Until this volte-face by ministers, it was feared that the statutory annual measures of child poverty – part of a vital dataset for tracking the impact of policies on the incomes of households with different characteristics – would be lost too.
Why do the measures matter?
The government has been arguing against the child poverty measures, which capture various aspects of household incomes, for some time, claiming that to focus on money is to focus on the ‘symptoms’ and not the ‘root causes’ of poverty. It therefore sought to replace the child poverty measures with new measures of ‘life chances’, focusing on children in workless households and educational attainment at age 16.
These issues are certainly important, but they miss the fact that poverty is, at its heart, about not having enough money, and that almost two-thirds of children living in poverty have a parent in work.
The experience of living in poverty has many dimensions, but academics, professionals and the general public agree that lack of material resources is the main characteristic of being poor. And it is beyond doubt that poverty poses a serious risk to children’s life chances, with consequences for health, cognitive development, educational outcomes, social and emotional wellbeing which extend far into adulthood. A life chances strategy which does not look at poverty would be nonsensical.
It is also beyond doubt that the swathe of cuts to social security benefits, both those implemented since 2010 and the further cuts now going through parliament, will make children poorer. New projections suggest that child poverty will increase by 50% by 2020, due primarily to benefit levels falling away from the mainstream of family incomes. This has been termed the ‘biggest rise in child poverty in a generation’.
Many commentators wonder if the government is trying to hide the expected surge in poverty by quietly dropping the statistics. The government has certainly worked hard to discredit the child poverty measures, for example asserting that the measures incentivised previous governments to move households from just below the poverty line to just over it rather than making more fundamental inroads into poverty, an argument categorically disproved by IFS analysis.
We have four excellent measures of poverty, recognised internationally and based on decades of academic work and expertise, which allow us to understand the impact of policies and hold the government to account for changes in the fortunes of disadvantaged families. Between them these measures capture:
– Relative poverty, to track whether the fortunes of a group of the population are falling behind or catching up with the mainstream, over time;
– Absolute poverty, to track whether family incomes at the bottom end are rising or falling in real terms from one year to the next;
– Poverty with material deprivation, to track what is happening to standards of living and ability to afford the essentials; and
– Persistent poverty, to track how likely families are to be stuck in poverty year after year.
For anyone concerned about poverty and the life chances of the current generation of children, it is vital that this information base be maintained.
A huge number of charities and other experts spoke out against the changes. More than 175 academics and health, education and social work professionals signed letters to the Times and the Guardian. 50,000 members of the public signed a petition started by a mum with experience of struggling to make ends meet. Blogs were published, briefings were given to MPs and peers, and hundreds of people wrote to their MPs and members of the House of Lords. Parliamentarians launched inquiries, gathered evidence and published hard-hitting reports. Peers and MPs spoke passionately and convincingly in a series of debates, presenting a raft of evidence and expert opinion which all pointed to preserving the child poverty measures.
In the end, the government agreed to commit in law to publishing these statistics annually. By giving the poverty statistics prominence in the Life Chances Act, it has also acknowledged the importance of family income to life chances. We hope this will be reflected in the life chances strategy due to be published in the coming months.
Securing the measurement of child poverty is a big win, but measurement is not the same as action. There will be no legal obligation on the government to take steps to reduce child poverty, even though action is urgently needed. The government will be obliged to publish these statistics, but not to provide an official report on them. This means that it will be for those outside government to make sure that attention is still given to these figures, and the impact of policies on poverty investigated.
But this success will mean that any movement in poverty levels, whether up or down, will be in full public view, permitting rigorous analysis of what is driving change, and a generation of children will not be whitewashed from the record books.
As Rebecca, the mother who launched the petition to save the measures, asked: ‘Children in poverty already feel poor and disadvantaged, why should they also be unnoticed’?