In 1999, I set out the government’s path to end child poverty through a 20-year mission. While ambitious, long-term commitments help focus minds, that pledge made clear that we believed that tolerating child poverty was indefensible and it should – and could – be tackled head on.
In the years that followed, Labour governments took a million children out of poverty, with absolute and relative measures of child poverty falling significantly. But what made the difference was the fact that our commitment was driven by the centre of government and combined with carefully defined series actions, across a range of policy areas and departments.
We introduced tax credits and increased spending, resulting in an additional £18 billion on benefits for families with children. A child’s early years are critically important to their social and educational development, so we brought in Sure Start. We increased support for childcare, increased maternity pay and leave and introduced paid paternity leave too. Spending on education increased dramatically and there were 40,000 more teachers in our schools by 2010, as did the number of young people going onto higher education.
It is to be deeply regretted that, the progress we made has been lost over the last ten years, with hundreds of Sure Start centres shut and a benefits freeze which the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has cited as the biggest single driver behind rising poverty. Most charities involved in combatting child poverty say that more than four million children now live below the breadline, 600,000 more than in 2011/12, and that number will climb past five million as a result of cuts and the economic impact of Covid in the next few years.
I fear the economic scarring left by the pandemic and lockdowns will further turbo-charge the reversal of the gains made between 1999 and 2010, while we can currently only guess the long-term effects on children’s education and wellbeing.
The situation is in some ways even more complex now than it was in 1999. I know from my time in government that the levers to address child poverty are varied and cut across policy areas and government departments.
In addition to changes to the benefit and tax credit systems, childcare, parental leave and education, the legacy of Covid and its impact on child poverty will need to be assessed and measures drawn up to counter it. Furthermore, the fact that an estimated 70% of children judged to be in poverty are in working households means we must examine how work can better support families.
That is why, in addition to a renewed commitment to eradicating child poverty within a generation, we need a national plan, drawing on all relevant areas of government capability. The challenge is huge and urgent, but it is achievable, and prime ministerial ownership, backed by the right government machinery and personnel to chase progress and clear obstacles, can make the critical difference.