We are heading in the wrong direction on child poverty. This is not the view of some left-wing think tank. It comes straight from the mouths of Alan Milburn, a Blairite former health secretary, and Gillian Shephard, a former Tory education secretary.
A political double act chairing the new Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, they say the Coalition has no chance of meeting its targets in terms of reducing child poverty, defined as those who are living in families on below 60 per cent of the median income. On the contrary, the latest figures show that 2.3 million children – 18 per cent – live in families below this line, while the Institute of Fiscal Studies has warned that as austerity bites the figure could soar to 3.3 million by 2020, the target year for the abolition of child poverty.
There are legitimate arguments against the way that child poverty is defined and especially about whether a family’s income should be the sole index of deprivation. One problem with relying on income alone is that it has manifestly encouraged governments to concentrate on moving families just below this income line to just above it, through tax credits. Clearly, this is not tackling poverty, it is massaging figures.
More discussion about definitions of poverty would be welcome. But it must not become an excuse for cynically moving the goalposts so that fewer children actually living in poverty show up in statistics.
In the meantime, the Coalition Government should listen to what Mr Milburn and Lady Shephard recommend, starting with their suggestion that the Office for Budget Responsibility should be tasked with disclosing the impact that each budget is likely to have on children living in deprived families.
At a time when the emphasis remains on reducing the deficit, there is still scope for targeted measures in this field. If we cannot move matters forward, at least we should not be going backwards.