Theresa May’s actions to date do not match her early rhetoric.
The last Labour government led a radical and comprehensive effort across government and beyond to abolish child poverty. We should not forget that through a co-ordinated and focused approach, one million children were lifted out of poverty.
We have learned this week that the Conservative government are taking a different approach. Instead of seeking to abolish child poverty, they have abolished the Child Poverty Unit. That is a deeply concerning admission because child poverty should scar our conscience as much as it does our children’s futures.
The government should be doing everything possible to ensure that no child in Britain grows up in poverty. When the Prime Minister stood on the steps of Downing Street, she promised to fight the burning injustice of being born poor and to lead a government that worked for everyone. Having a country that works for everyone requires government to both help those who fall behind and stop people being disadvantaged from the outset. The Tories are falling well short on both counts.
All the evidence shows that children living in poverty face too many obstacles to reaching their potential. They are more likely to fall behind in school, less likely to secure a stable job, and more likely to suffer from ill health. In my Barnsley constituency, more than one in four children grow up in poverty. It is a pattern repeated in classrooms across the country, where on average nine children in a classroom of thirty experience its effects.
Across the UK, that adds up to four million children. Looking ahead, the Institute for Fiscal Studies projects the biggest increase in relative child poverty in a generation. They predict the number of children growing up in poverty will grow by 50 per cent by 2020. Simply put, the present situation is unacceptable and, without action, what will follow in the years ahead is worse still.
So the government has a choice to make. With the power to stop that increase happening, their decision will shape what kind of country we live in. Yet what we have recently learned of the government’s policies in response to my questions in parliament are deeply concerning. Not only has the once influential Child Poverty Unit been closed, but we learn that eliminating child poverty is no longer the stated goal of policy.
Civil service staff support for the government’s Social Mobility Commission will be limited to a maximum of seven staff, which is fewer than the number of commissioners. Furthermore, the long-delayed Life Chances strategy, which was to be the flagship approach, has been abandoned.
The government now has no unit, no target and no intention of eliminating child poverty. That is not a record which matches the Prime Minister’s rhetoric. The government’s forthcoming social mobility green paper cannot be adequate without addressing child poverty. When two in three children in poverty grow up in a household where someone works, tackling in-work poverty is critical to its success.
It is because work does not provide a guaranteed route out of poverty that we must take a far wider approach. That should include proposals to address insecurity at work and understand the rise of new forms of employment. Delivering a real living wage for more workers is an important step alongside providing opportunities for progression for those on lower incomes.
Every family understands the costs of childcare. For low income families in particular, childcare provision must be flexible and available when and where parents need it. Getting that right would make a big difference, because when childcare costs are accounted for, an additional 130,000 children are pushed into poverty.
While children may be 20 per cent of the population, they are 100 per cent of the future. So our approach must focus on achieving a good and nurturing childhood, as well as what happens next.
I hope the government now take the opportunity to change course because poverty wrecks childhoods and limits futures.
We serve in politics to change lives. So I will put every effort into rebuilding a cross-party consensus on child poverty. To that end, I will introduce a bill into Parliament which seeks to set a new and binding target to reduce child poverty.
That is how we can build a country that really works for everyone. The Prime Minister has pledged that will be the defining mission for her government. It begins by doing right by the next generation.