David Laws challenges Tories on child poverty

The frustrations of being in government with the Tories are no greater than when they are concerned with issues of poverty and vulnerability. Many Liberal Democrats have ongoing concerns about welfare reforms which remove support from people who need it. However much we might try to console ourselves with the fact that we are making a difference with things like free school meals, the raising of the tax threshold, extra childcare for the poorest, an early start to education for the poorest 2 year olds and making sure that the whole country enjoys the benefits of the economic recovery and the 1.3 million jobs that have been created, much more needs to be done.

The latest tensions between the coalition parties are over child poverty. Liberal Democrats had agreed a set of new ways of measuring child poverty which would come in for the next Parliament with Iain Duncan Smith. He certainly is a Tory who is closer to getting it than most, but I also have it in the back of my mind that he wanted to cap Child Benefit after two children. Anyway, that agreement was blocked by George Osborne on the grounds that it cost too much.

Laws told the Guardian about his frustration with the Tories on this:

Very serious work had been done that meant this suite of measures could have been produced and been robust. The problem is that we do not seem to have a serious credible alternative from theConservatives. I am frustrated and baffled as to why the Conservatives will not sign up to these measures.

I am not clear what Conservative policy now is on entrenched poverty, absolute poverty, relative poverty. I don’t think it is sensible after we have been in government not to have policies on these matters. It is up to the Conservatives to explain what the would do if they were left to themselves. The targets designed to last many generations would drive policy.

The fact that the Conservatives have not been willing to agree a set of measures should not mean this debate runs into the sand.

He added that the Tories’ plans for welfare cuts in the next Parliament were a factor in their decision:

Obviously any party that is considering making swingeing and excessive cuts to the welfare budget in the next parliament would worry about supporting measures that have an income component in either relative or absolute terms

If you spend any time with Tories, you virtually never hear them talk about tackling poverty. Their greatest concern is protecting the middle classes and cutting taxes. They don’t have the first clue about what it’s like to live in a cold, damp house with no money to feed your children and they seem to be missing the capacity to imagine what that must be like. Their radar is simply not tuned into these things and they don’t bother to look outside their comfort zone.

Laws says that he wants the new way of measuring child poverty to be part of the Liberal Democrat manifesto for 2015. That’s all well and good, but all politicians need to take this seriously. If you grow up poor,  the chances are at the moment that you will get lower grades at school. That means your opportunities and earnings potential over your life is hampered. The long term health effects of not having enough to eat or living in poor accommodation adversely affect people for their whole lives. The Pupil Premium, those extra funds for disadvantaged children in school, championed by Nick Clegg are fantastic. However the impact would surely be enhanced if children were not going home to cold, overcrowded houses where there isn’t enough to eat.

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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  • Adam Corlett 28th Feb '14 - 10:54am

    “If you spend any time with Tories, you virtually never hear them talk about tackling poverty. Their greatest concern is protecting the middle classes and cutting taxes.”

    I suppose that differs from current Lib Dem policy in that while our fiscal priorities are about protecting the middle classes and cutting (one kind of) taxes, we at least dress it up as tackling poverty!

  • Touche, Adam! While I recognise the preoccupations Caron lists among Tories that I know, I also think it’s an over-generalisation and doesn’t allow for the possibility that people may agree on the same end – for example reducing poverty – but disagree about the means of achieving it. This was, after all, perhaps the central message of the Orange Book which a certain David Laws edited and co-authored…

    Frankly, it would be just as arguable to claim (though no doubt also an unfair generalisation) that ‘if you spend any time with Lib Dems, you rarely hear them talking about wealth creation. They are only concerned with spending other people’s money on their own pet causes and looking after their own middle-class, public sector core supporters. They have no idea what it’s like to set up a business from scratch and live or die by the service it offers to its customers.’

    Unfair? Perhaps. Exaggated? Certainly. But I’m afraid it is often the impression that many Lib Dems give to non-partisans, just as too many Tories come across as insouciant towards the less fortunate. Physician, heal thyself.

  • Laws told the Guardian about his frustration with the Tories on this:
    ” The problem is that we do not seem to have a serious credible alternative from theConservatives. I am frustrated and baffled as to why the Conservatives will not sign up to these measures. ”

    Laws is baffled. I imagine that there will be a number of Liberal Democrat reading this and then muttering under their breath or shouting out loud in anger.

    Perhaps Laws has not noticed the last 150 years of the Conservative Party in action?

  • Stuart Mitchell 28th Feb '14 - 6:46pm

    @Alex Sabine
    The difference is, you genuinely don’t hear Tories talking about poverty much – but you DO hear Lib Dems talking about businesses, on a regular basis. Just Google “Nick Clegg small business” and you will get a screen full of examples.

    As for Lib Dems not “talking about wealth creation” – perhaps Lib Dems just realise that EVERYBODY active in the economy is engaged in wealth creation, not just the entrepeneurs.

  • Can you really spend 4 years supporting policies which increase the number of children in poverty and then turn round and looked shocked when the Tories don’t agree with you how exactly to fudge the figures?

  • The term “undeserving poor” has been resurrected from Victorian times. Lib Dems have used it in LDV. The so called “undeserving poor” have kids yet they remain a target.

  • Paul In Twickenham 1st Mar '14 - 9:10am

    @BrianD – can you reference an example of where the phrase “undeserving poor” has been used on this website without quotation marks (as you have done) and/or without a clear intent to indicate that the writer understands and agrees that the term is pejorative?

  • @Paul in Tick. No Paul but It formed the subject of discussion a few weeks ago. I can assure you I didn’t make it up because I couldn’t believe what I was reading!

  • Nigel Jones 1st Mar '14 - 8:42pm

    Caron’s last paragraph about the relation between children’s achievements and their home circumstances is highly relevant.
    At the Nottingham conference two weeks ago on Education, organised by the Liberal Democrat Education Association and the LGA Liberal Democrat Group, I stressed the importance of what goes on outside school. There is evidence (so I am informed) suggesting that a child’s performance is affected more by improving their social conditions than by improving what teachers do. Hence I went on to say that LAs (e.g. their social services departments) have a big part to play in improving children’s education. I was supported by others in this and this discussion took place in the presence of David Laws, who was listening but commented very little on this particular point. I hope we can all agree that all kinds of organisations have a part to play in dealing with these issues, but the leadership surely comes from local and national government.

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