Child benefit should be frozen, says Frank Field

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Indy Politics

Child benefit and child tax credits would be frozen and the money switched to improving the life chances of disadvantaged children before they start school, under plans being considered by the Government.

In a report today, Frank Field, the Labour MP and the Government's anti-poverty tsar, recommends a change away from boosting the incomes of poor families. Instead, his inquiry proposes improving public services and breaking the cycle to "prevent poor children from becoming poor adults".

Ministers are expected to welcome Mr Field's broad approach when they set out their strategy later this month. Although the Coalition supports the previous government's goal to abolish child poverty by 2020, it is edging away from redistributing income. Nick Clegg, the Deputy Prime Minister, argued in the Hugo Young Lecture last week that improving social mobility should be the priority.

Mr Field calls for the drive to start when babies are still in the womb, through improved antenatal and parenting classes. He wants the 0-5 age group, which he dubs the "foundation years", put on an equal footing with primary and secondary schooling. He argues that it is too late to turn around life chances by the time children start school.

A new set of "life chance indicators" would measure children's cognitive, physical and emotional development at the ages of three and five. Eventually, they would also be measured at 10 and when they leave secondary school.

Mr Field, a former welfare reform minister, admits that his switch away from the traditional approach of lifting people above the poverty line will provoke controversy. But he argues that his strategy would redistribute income by improving the job and earnings prospects of children from disadvantaged backgrounds.

His report calculates that a further £37bn a year would have to be spent on tax credits to cut child poverty to 5 per cent of all children. Child benefit and child tax credits could rise in line with inflation each year. But instead of increasing them in real terms, the Government should consider whether it would be better to spend the money on building up services such as children's centres, childcare for all two-year-olds from poor families, a better home visiting service and parenting courses. At present, he argues, "those that need most help get the worst deal".

Mr Field insists that income is not the main factor in inter-generational poverty. He said: "I have increasingly come to view poverty as a much more subtle enemy than purely lack of money, and I have similarly become increasingly concerned about how the poverty that parents endure is all too often visited on their children, to the degree that they continue to be poor as they enter adulthood."

Today's report argues that the task of nurturing children "is not primarily one that belongs to the state" but to parents. "We imperil the country's future if we forget that it is the aspirations and actions of parents which are critical to how well their children prosper," it says.