What’s the government got against children?

by Michael Dugher

Today Sarah Teather, the Lib Dem minister for children and families, will be questioned by a cross-party group of MPs following a damning report by the all-party parliamentary group on Sure Start that said that, the UK is facing a “childcare crisis”.

The report highlights that fewer than half of all councils are able to provide adequate help for working parents.   Last week, I appeared on the BBC’s Any Questions? alongside Sarah Teather.  When asked what the government should do in the forthcoming budget she said: “One of the most important things is to put money back into families’ pockets”.  I nearly choked on my BBC mineral water.

The truth is that life getting more difficult for many families with children.  This was highlighted again on Monday by the national childcare charity Daycare Trust, which revealed that 44,000 fewer families have received help with childcare costs since cuts to tax credits took effect last April.  Furthermore, by cutting the maximum level of support available through the childcare element of the working tax credit, the government is taking an additional £500 per year away from many low-income working families.

Unfortunately, this is only the tip of the iceberg.  Just two weeks ago, the shadow treasury minister, Cathy Jamieson, revealed that 200,000 households, including 470,000 children, will lose tax credits worth almost £4,000 a year unless they significantly increase their working hours.

Due to changes that will come into effect in April, couples with children will have to work a total of 24 hours a week, rather than 16 hours, to qualify for the working tax credit.  In Barnsley alone, this could affect over 750 households and 1,400 children.  At a time when many employers are reducing, not increasing, the hours for part-time employees.  The government seems, perversely, to have a ‘work to welfare’ policy.

Government policies are also forcing many Sure Start children’s centres to close; centres which have been so successful in helping families and communities in poorer areas.  The government claims it is still committed to Sure Start, but figures revealed by Labour show that Sure Start budgets have been slashed in 83% of England’s local authorities.  The average decrease in real-term budgets was 11%last year and will be at least 21%this year.  Children’s charities, such as 4Children, have rightly voiced their concerns about the potential impact this will have on child poverty.

Save the Children have also raised concerns about the government’s overall approach, arguing that the “deficit reduction burden is falling heaviest on households with children”.  It found that the median income among households with children is set to fall in real terms by 4.2% between 2010-11 and 2015-16: the equivalent of an annual cut of £1,250 for a couple with two children.  In addition, a recent report published by End Child Poverty, says that government policies will hit families that are already suffering the most financially.  Overall, the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) has calculated that absolute child poverty could rise by as much as half a million during the course of this Parliament.

In June 2010, shortly after becoming prime minister, David Cameron stood at the despatch box and promised that the government would make sure “the least well-off families get the most money” and that “child poverty will not go up by one family”.   The evidence now clearly contradicts these assertions.

Reacting to widespread criticisms, Cameron has resorted to blaming the way the statistics are measured.  On the ITV Daybreak sofa in December last year, Cameron said: “There is a real problem with the way we measure child poverty because it is done on relative poverty”.  He said it was “illogical” because the policy to up-rate pensions in-line with inflation made other groups appear poorer even if their incomes had not changed.

However, the IFS quickly showed that Cameron was wrong to blame rising child poverty on the statistical system.  The IFS analysts said that there was indeed a relative impact due to the government’s policy changes, but that there was “undeniably” an absolute effect as well which was more significant and would reduce the income of the lowest earners, tipping more children into absolute poverty.

Now the government appears to be looking at scrapping the UK’s official child poverty measure altogether.  Reports in the Times on Monday this week said that Michael Gove, Oliver Letwin and Steve Hilton – the prime minister’s chief policy guru – are formulating a plan to scrap official child poverty statistics “amid signs that it would produce a string of bad headlines for the Government”.

Unsurprisingly, organisations like the Child Poverty Action Group, have reacted angrily.  Instead of worrying about their PR problem, ministers should face up to the policy challenge.  In 1999, Labour set out plans to eradicate child poverty “within a generation” and by the time of the last election there were 900,000 fewer children living in poverty.  Although the government says it is still committed to continuing Labour’s work, its policies only act to undermine all the progress that has been made over the last decade.

As we approach budget day, ministers have choices to make. At the autumn statement, the government chose to take three times as much from families as they did from the banks.  In the face of the Government’s cuts in support for cancer patients and disabled people, Sarah Teather, whilst content to stay on the ministerial pay-roll, famously absented herself from the votes in the Commons on the welfare reform bill, using the excuse of a pressing engagement in Sheffield.

When she faces MPs about why her Government is failing children and families, she will need to find new excuses.

Michael Dugher is Labour MP for Barnsley East and shadow minister without portfolio.

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One Response to “What’s the government got against children?”

  1. swatantra says:

    Gordon took half amillion children out of poverty and it seems that Camron is going to put them back into ‘poverty’. Having said that there is no real clear and meaningful definition of ‘poverty’ as such and it would such an updated definition would be welcomed.
    Grandparents, more often pensioners, should be be more involved in childcare where parents are away working; its best to keep childcare within the family for toddlers. And the case was that middleclass parents were taking up the Surestart places and not working class, and that needs to be addressed.

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