The Honourable Member of Parliament for Birkenhead has never sat very comfortably in his own party. Tony Blair appointed him welfare reform minister and asked him to think the unthinkable, then sacked him a year later for doing precisely that. More than a decade on, Frank Field received a similar brief, this time outside the Government, from a Conservative Prime Minister. The fruits of his labours were published yesterday in a report entitled The Foundation Years: Preventing Poor Children Becoming Poor Adults; his conclusions made characteristically awkward reading.
Mr Field states baldly that huge class differences can be observed in children's abilities even on their very first day of school. "For many poor children," he says, "life's race is by then already effectively over." Among the remedies he proposes for this shocking state of affairs is a focus on the quality of parenting and more nursery education, with checks on a child's cognitive, physical and emotional development at the ages of three and five.
One of his most controversial ideas – attacked by Labour and child poverty campaigners the moment the report came out – is his contention that a child's life chances are dictated less by money, or the lack of it, than by competent parenting. The two, he would argue, do not inevitably go together. From this he deduces that child benefit need not necessarily keep pace with inflation. There might be times, he suggests, when that money would be better spent on facilities and programmes, such as an expansion of Labour's Sure Start scheme, which the Coalition is committed to preserving.
In separating parenting from money, Mr Field is breaking an assumption cherished beyond the political left. When Mr Blair and then Gordon Brown pledged to "end child poverty", they spoke almost exclusively in financial terms. And it was money they mostly used to address the problem: higher child benefit, child tax credits, higher housing benefit and so on. It can be argued that this sometimes had perverse effects: it may even, indirectly, have increased the number of children who needed to be "lifted out of poverty". Mr Field takes a different approach.
It is not necessary at this stage to reach any definitive judgement on the merits or otherwise of his proposals. What has to be understood, though, is that Britain has a problem with the opportunities open to its children. A study by Unicef, which appeared coincidentally on the same day as Mr Field's review, found that we had one of the most striking gaps in the industrialised world between the chances of children from homes with average incomes and those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds. In three main categories of well-being – material, educational and health – Britain came in the bottom two fifths. Nor is this the first international study to find Britain's children doing less well than their counterparts in other developed countries.
Such surveys can and will be open to different interpretations. But one conclusion is hard to escape: either the money-led measures introduced by the last government have yet to filter through, or they do not provide the answer. Either way, there is undoubtedly room for new thinking about the welfare of Britain's poorest children, and if Mr Field's report sparks an open and informed debate, that is something that should be welcomed.