Tony Blair's flagship pledge to "eradicate" child poverty by 2020 was quietly abandoned yesterday after the Government rewrote its definition of low income.
When the Prime Minister first announced his ambitious target in 1999, he declared that Labour's historic mission would be to ensure no child was living on the breadline within a generation. But the Department for Work and Pensions announced yesterday that it would aim instead for Britain to be merely "among the best in Europe" on child poverty.
Denmark has the best record in the EU, with 5 per cent of its youngsters on low incomes, compared to 24 per cent in the UK. But even if Britain was to repeat the Danish performance, that would still leave half a million children in poverty. Campaign groups said the move was a clear attempt to water down the pledge after Andrew Smith, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, issued a written parliamentary statement detailing the new definition.
Mr Smith said the UK had made great progress since 1997, rising from bottom of the European league to roughly the EU average for child poverty. Some 500,000 youngsters have been taken out of poverty since 1997, with the figure falling from 3.2 million to 2.7 million today, government figures show.
Ministers are just about on track to achieve Mr Blair's initial target of cutting the number of children on the lowest incomes by a quarter by 2004.
Children's charities were delighted that Gordon Brown, the Chancellor, announced an extra £1bn for children's tax credit last week to help achieve the target. But the fears of some that the statistical goalposts would be moved were borne out yesterday when Mr Smith announced a number of changes in the definitions of poverty.
In line with the practice of previous administrations, a relative poverty measure under Labour was defined as those on less than 60 per cent of median household income.
Some criticised the measure as crude and after a long consultation period, the DWP has now decided to adopt a "tiered approach" which includes measures of absolute poverty and material deprivation. A report issued by Mr Smith yesterday says "success in eradicating poverty could be interpreted as having a material deprivation child poverty rate that approached zero and being amongst the best in Europe on relative low incomes".
A DWP spokesman said that the Government had never defined how child poverty would be measured beyond 2004. Under the new measures, "absolute poverty" for a single child will be defined as living in a household with an income of £210 a week or less at today's prices.
Martin Barnes, director of the Child Poverty Action Group, said: "The Government has still set itself ambitious goals, but the aim to be amongst the best in Europe on relative child poverty falls far short of a pledge to eradicate it. By 2020 we should as a minimum aim to be the best in Europe not amongst the best." Mr Barnes added that the change in the way that relative income was to be defined could mean that up to 800,000 children fall out of the present headline measure.
David Willetts, the shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, said: "Only this Government could claim that 'half a million children in poverty' is the same as 'zero children in poverty'. They're trying to shift the goalposts on one of their own flagship targets."
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