Tackling child poverty by stealth will fail, say think-tanks

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The Government's drive to eliminate poverty for pensioners and children is doomed to fail, two think-tanks warned.

The Government's drive to eliminate poverty for pensioners and children is doomed to fail, two think-tanks warned.

The Fabian Society, which is affiliated to Labour, and the independent New Policy Institute, criticised the Government for trying to tackle poverty "by stealth". Although Labour has redistributed wealth since coming to power in 1997, ministers have been reluctant to proclaim this for fear of alienating middle class voters.

At a joint conference in London yesterday, the two bodies warned that too many people who found jobs then fell back into unemployment or never escaped low paid and unskilled work. The criticism reflected fears, shared by some Labour MPs, that the Government's campaign to encourage the jobless into work will prove less successful now that economic growth has slowed.

The two think-tanks urged the Government to set out the "minimum living standards" which society regards as tolerable and then to raise social security benefits over time to this level.

They warned that the Government could not solve the problem alone and called for a broader anti-poverty strategy involving business, local government, public bodies such as the National Health Service, trade unions and the voluntary sector.

While welcoming the progress made since 1997 in the fight against poverty, the two groups said: "Its political priority must be raised if the Government's commitment to eradicating child and pensioner poverty by 2018 is to be achieved."

Speaking at the conference, John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, insisted the Government had made tackling poverty and social exclusion a political priority.

He said that in 1997 Labour had inherited record levels of postwar deprivation. "Britain was suffering from appalling rates of social exclusion ... It's a terrible indictment that the gulf between the haves and have-nots had widened so dramatically," he said.

Alistair Darling, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, defended the Government's "work first" approach. He told the conference that a rising tide of economic growth would not automatically lift everybody out of poverty. Everyone should have the opportunity to contribute to building wealth and sharing its benefits.

"Tackling poverty is not simply a moral issue, about improving the lives of individuals. It is also an economic necessity, because every one of us pays the bills of poverty," he said.

However, he conceded: "In Britain, the fourth largest economy in the world, one statistic stands out – 80 per cent of children in families where nobody works live in poverty."