Ministers to start anti-poverty drive

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The Independent Online
THE GOVERNMENT yesterday began an offensive to try to win back its core support with a pledge to take 1.25 million people - more than half of them children - out of poverty by the next general election.

Alistair Darling, the Secretary of State for Social Security, set the target to defuse growing unrest among "core voters" in the Labour Party due to surface again at its annual conference in October at Bournemouth. Protests at the failure to do more to alleviate poverty first came at the party's policy forum in Durham.

"We agreed to a national debate on welfare at that gathering to head off any lingering discontentment about restoring the link between pensions and earnings," said a senior party source. "The welfare document will come up to be endorsed at the party conference. We can expect to get a barnstorming, finger-wagging speech from Barbara Castle."

The decision to go ahead with the new pledge on poverty was taken after party officials told a strategy meeting the Government would lift 1.25 million out of poverty by the next election. Tony Blair forecast the figure in his Beveridge lecture on 29 March. This was seen by the Tories as evidence of "spin doctoring" with Labour's pledges, but the Social Security Secretary made it clear the improvements in living standards were real for those among the poorest in society.

Mr Darling said: "By the end of this Parliament one and a quarter million will be lifted out of poverty, 700,000 of them children." He cited the introduction of the national minimum wage, increases in child benefit, extra winter fuel payments for pensioners and - from October - the working families' tax credit as measures making a real difference.

There is little risk of Labour not meeting its target. The Government is using a definition of poverty as those on less than half the national average income, around pounds 130 a week for a childless couple and pounds 200 a week for a couple with two children. Set-backs for Labour in the Welsh assembly elections, local elections and the European elections had raised fears that Labour was losing its "core" voters.

But Tony Blair's advisers insisted that New Labour had to continue to direct its appeal at the middle classes. Tories saw Mr Darling's announcement as a sop to the Left and dismissed it as a "another relaunch".

David Willetts, the Shadow secretary for social security, said: "The Government will try to achieve this forecast target by focusing on the borderline cases rather than the very poor. This will make the poverty trap worse." He said there are 1.8 million children in households with income of less than half of the average.

nRobin Cook is ready to play a high-profile role in support of Britain's entry to the euro, including joining leading pro-European Tories such as Kenneth Clarke in a campaign for the single currency. The Foreign Secretary's decision to give his unequivocal backing to the Britain in Europe campaign will increase the pressure on Tony Blair - accused of dithering on the euro - to stand on the same platform as former Tory chancellor and deputy prime minister Michael Heseltine.

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