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Out of poverty

Kate Green applauds Labour’s achievements on reducing child poverty but asks where is the left on strategic debate to meet targets?

One of the most admirable – and least lauded - achievements of the Labour government under Tony Blair has been in reducing child poverty in Britain from the historically high rate the party inherited when it came into office in 1997. By the late 1990s, Britain had the highest rate of child poverty – with one in three children growing up below the poverty line - of any country in the EU. Since then, and thanks to government policies to increase parental employment and to make work pay, and substantial investment by the Chancellor in direct financial transfers to families with children, 800,000 children have been lifted out of poverty, and Britain no longer languishes at the bottom of the EU league table – though still today 3.4 million of our children are growing up poor.

One might have expected that tackling poverty and inequality would be a top-priority issue for Labour party members. But there is surprisingly little debate – or even awareness – about the government’s child poverty ambitions among the party’s activists. And whilst some Conservative supporters are already talking up the possibility of a ‘big speech’ on poverty and social justice by Iain Duncan Smith at the Tory party conference this autumn, Labour’s conference by contrast looks set to be dominated by the party’s internal controversies about the leadership and its foreign policy, while a disenchanted public look on.

The annual conference represents the most significant opportunity and forum for party members to engage in the debate about the government’s record and plans for tackling child poverty – and there is indeed much to discuss if the government is to continue its good work in reducing child poverty further. For - as a report published this summer by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has shown - progress has begun to falter. The government just missed its first target to reduce child poverty by a quarter by 2004-05 – meeting its next milestone, to reduce it by half by 2010, looks pretty well impossible on current policies. Yet where is the debate in the Labour party about how to get back on track - and where is the celebration of what has already been achieved? Here's an issue which has the potential to make a massive difference to the lives of so many of our children. But it is barely being discussed.

Labour is missing a trick here. Ask parents what they think about Sure Start - responses are uniformly positive. Ask them what difference tax credits have made to their family’s income – despite deserved criticisms about their administration, many families speak positively about the difference that the extra cash has made. Ask lone parents who want to go out to work what makes it possible for them to do so – they praise New Deal advisers, the availability of affordable childcare, and the minimum wage and working tax credit that make work pay. These are significant achievements and need to be built on – but as some thoughtful MPs have already noted, few people seem have cottoned on to the fact that they are not things that have just ‘happened’, but are a direct result of government policy.

If Labour is serious about meeting the next child poverty target, that needs to change, for the government will need considerable public support for the greater redistribution and investment that will be required to meet its aim of lifting a further 1.1 million children out of poverty. Talking openly about the policies to date and how families have benefited from them is vital to underpin the next big policy push that is needed. The Rowntree research indicated that halving child poverty by 2010 would cost at least £4 billion. That’s no small sum, and politicians are worried, but the money can be found. Further redistribution or reprioritising of spending programmes, higher employment through a combination of increased investment in support for the economically inactive and unemployed to move into paid work and continued economic growth, and increases in cash benefits for families with children, are all quite achievable and affordable - but they do present some difficult political choices for which public support must be built.

So this is the debate that must start to happen within the Labour party (and in the other parties) and with the public too. And it’s fair to say that anti-poverty activists could do more to help. Make Poverty History alerted public opinion to the scale of poverty abroad – and built massive support for action to tackle it. Now it's time for us to do the same for child poverty at home. A mass campaign to end the scandal of child poverty in one of the world's richest countries is urgently needed. This year’s conference season offers politicians the chance to take the lead in building that campaign.

CPAG will be holding a fringe meeting at the Labour party conference to promote debate on these issues, addressed by Ed Balls MP and Donald Hirsch from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. More information from parliament@cpag.org.uk

Kate Green is Chief Executive of the Child Poverty Action Group