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It’s been quite a week for child poverty. On Tuesday, Child Poverty Action Group published a report Ending Child Poverty by 2020 in which experts across income, work and services to give their verdict on progress so far and the conclusions that can be drawn for the road ahead. On Thursday, new official statistics revealed that the last government halved absolute poverty but missed its target to halve relative poverty by 2010. On the same day, Work & Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith announced his intention to consult on additional poverty measures.

Undoubtedly substantial progress was made on income poverty but also, as our experts conclude, in parental employment and public services. We have seen tremendous advances in areas like provision of free childcare, lone parent employment, the establishment of the network of Sure Start centres and education policies that have helped increase the qualifications gained by all children, including the poorest. The UK’s wellbeing indicators show that are children are also healthier, happier and less likely to engage is risky behaviours.

A key factor that aided progress was the establishment of a cross-party political consensus on the need to address child poverty. This was made possible after a move by the current generation of Conservative politicians towards recognising the importance of measuring and reducing relative poverty – arguably, a transition as remarkable as any Labour went through when New Labour was forged.

A report from Iain Duncan Smith’s Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) in 2006 said: “The traditional Conservative vision of welfare as a safety net also encompasses another outdated Tory nostrum – that poverty is absolute, not relative.” 

In the same year, at the Scarman Lecture, David Cameron said: “We need to think of poverty in relative terms – the fact that some people lack those things which others in society take for granted… The Conservative Party recognises, will measure and will act on relative poverty… Poverty is relative – and those who pretend otherwise are wrong.” 

But more recently some prominent Conservative supporters have once again attacked the focus on relative poverty, such as Fraser Nelson; and even the CSJ seem to have had a change of heart in a recent publication.

The idea that poverty campaigners believe a relative income poverty target alone is sufficient is a straw man. Poverty is multi-dimensional, which is why Child Poverty Action Group and our partners in the Campaign to End Child Poverty agree that we cannot only have a focus on relative poverty. During the passage of the Child Poverty Act we worked with MPs from all parties to ensure the legislation contained a basket of four targets and ways of measuring child poverty – relative poverty, absolute poverty, persistent poverty and material deprivation.

We also lobbied hard to ensure that as well as having statutory targets – which are basically the finishing line – we also have a set of statutory drivers, which are the engine to take us to the finishing line. These drivers include parental employment, financial support, parenting skills, physical and mental health, education, childcare, social services, housing and social inclusion. All the main parties agreed that it is right that, by law, these must be considered in any child poverty strategy.

That’s why I am really pleased that Bright Blue has backed campaigns on affordable childcare and the value of Sure Start. These focus on what’s needed to build on the progress made in reducing UK child poverty and improving child wellbeing.

Affordable childcare matters. It matters because of the difference high quality childcare can make to the development of children from disadvantaged backgrounds. It matters because childcare costs burn a huge hole in family budgets. And, crucially, it matters because childcare is an essential service for allowing parents to get a job. That’s why the Coalition’s cut to childcare credits through the tax credits received by working parents – despite other encouraging developments – disappoints and puzzles so many. Research by Bright Blue campaign partners Save the Children and the Daycare Trust has shown that this change has disrupted work incentives for many parents, meaning it no longer gives them a financial benefit to remain in work.

We now have an opportunity to forge partnerships with progressives in all parties to lobby the Coalition on indicators that can engage with the drivers already present in the Act. For example, the ‘parental employment’ driver needs to be fleshed out with indicators recognising that it is not just any old job that ends poverty, but secure and well-paid full- and part-time jobs, with opportunities for training and progression; or for the ‘childcare’ driver we need to return again to having a national childcare strategy and consider indicators that encourage the expansion of both free and affordable childcare places of the same standard we see in the Nordic countries.

But finally, we do need to recognise that if the rises in income poverty that the IFS has warned of take place – sharp increases to both absolute and relative poverty – then history tells us we should expect a rise in problems like debt, addiction and family breakdown. As the saying goes, when poverty comes in at the door, love flies out the window.

Alison Garnham is Chief Executive of Child Poverty Action Group. 

Follow Alison on Twitter: @cpaguk 

The guest blog is published every Friday and views held by contributors are not necessarily those of Bright Blue, as good as they often are.

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