For many years I was the child poverty champion for the Liberal Democrats. I urged leading members of our parliamentary party to sign up to the targets, which aimed to halve child poverty by 2010 and eliminate it by 2020. I was delighted when those targets were enshrined in law, with cross party support in 2010.
Even though the UK will have missed its half way target, it is expected that at least 900,000 children will have been lifted out of poverty and a similar number prevented from falling into poverty between 1998 and 2010 which is a significant achievement.
At the end of May, two interesting reports were published on child poverty. One from UNICEF, says ‘the UK’s success in reducing child poverty to date is linked to the previous Government’s focus on increasing household income.’ Another, from the Centre for Social Justice, says that ‘poverty is about more than money – it is about family breakdown, addiction, debt traps and failing schools that blight the lives of our children’.
The Child Poverty Action Group makes a significant contribution to this debate with its collection of papers by respected academics and experts which look at all aspects of child poverty reduction. Assessments are made on the contribution of financial support and relevant interventions such as Sure Start, early years provision and the Decent Homes Programme.
In the foreword to this piece of work the Chief Executive Alison Garnham comments, ‘that the contributors make the point that an adequate income is a necessary if not a sufficient condition for reducing child poverty.’ Against this background I thought that I would produce my personal Report Card on some of the policies and measures introduced by the Coalition Government which are likely to impact on child poverty.
The opening sentence will of course point out the constraints placed upon the Government from having to clear up the economic mess left by Labour and the necessity to bring the massive deficit under control, readers will have noticed that all good Lib Dems are meant to say this at every opportunity!
Deficit reduction measures are important for getting our economy back on track, but there is no doubt that the chosen areas for reduction have impacted particularly heavily on the poorest families with cuts to benefits which have been credited with the reduction of child poverty in the past.
The introduction of universal credit and the principle of making work pay should contribute to breaking the vicious cycle of poverty but its impact is likely to be hampered by limited funding and job opportunities in the current economic climate.
Promising Coalition Government policies include the commitment to provide universal entitlement to 15 hours early years education for all three and four year olds, and 15 hours a week early years education to all disadvantaged two year olds. It is particularly pleasing that the child care will be available for those in non-working households as well as supporting people into work.
Early intervention, specifically educational and social interventions are going to be crucial to breaking the cycle of poverty, providing the best start in life and making sure that children from disadvantaged backgrounds are not so further disadvantaged by the time they start school.
Identifying and supporting 120,000 troubled families, increasing resources in the family nurse partnership, and employing more health visitors are all examples of positive interventions from the current Government.
The £2.5 billion Pupil Premium, a key Liberal Democrat policy, is directly targeted at schools to encourage them to take on pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds. Poverty in childhood should not mean poverty for life, and the Pupil Premium will help to ensure that children from disadvantaged backgrounds are given the best possible educational opportunities.
Whilst these measures will help reduce child poverty, cuts to other budgets including the scrapping of EMA are deeply worrying. Even with some restoration of the EMA budget and promises of helping disadvantaged children in higher education, young people may not complete their 6th form studies or go on to further education.
On a positive note Nick Clegg’s Social Mobility Strategy highlights the importance of social mobility. This introduces a set of 17 indicators to judge how we as a society are closing the gap between the rich and the poor. A large proportion of these indicators relate to education and the significance of early childhood intervention in eradicating poverty and breaking the poverty cycle and will hopefully achieve visible results.
But despite the positives has the Coalition Government attached sufficient weight to the view that policies which provide income support to families need to be operating alongside all the other interventions. How damaging will some of the welfare cuts prove to be? Are we heading towards an even more unequal society which is self perpetuating as children are disadvantaged and deprived of so much? Are the Lib Dems providing sufficient pressure and impact on coalition policies to at least slow down the reversal of previous trends and indeed to provide long term sustainable change? The immediate future looks rocky but if we are to have any meaningful legacy from the Coalition we must succeed in increasing social mobility and do a lot more than redefining child poverty.