No child in Britain should live in poverty. Yet it is a daily reality for four million children, the equivalent of nine in a classroom of thirty.
Growing up in poverty means you are more likely to fall behind in school, less likely to secure a stable job in the future, and more likely to suffer from ill health in later life.
Everyone in the Labour movement shares a common desire to end child poverty. Worryingly, that goal is growing ever more distant. By 2020, the IFS forecast that levels of relative child poverty will increase by 50%.
That is a shocking failure which we as a Labour party must work to address because it is central to our defining purpose to ensure that every child should get the same opportunities. It’s the reason I stood for parliament in the first place, to serve in politics to improve lives. That is the responsibility comes with the privilege of public service.
It means we have a duty to ensure every child has the childhood they deserve and the opportunity to achieve success in their future. It is unacceptable to settle for anything less, and we should reject the lottery of birth determining someone’s path through life.
The last Labour government demonstrated what can be achieved through setting an ambitious target. Labour delivered the biggest improvement of any EU nation in lifting one million children out of poverty, transforming so many lives.
It didn’t happen by accident, but by design and as a result of political choices. Investment in higher quality early years education, childcare and Sure Start children’s centres was increased four-fold. Support was expanded for families so that they could enjoy greater control over their lives and greater financial security. Tax credits were introduced and the amount of maternity leave taken doubled.
Labour went further in 2010, forging a cross-party consensus which set a child poverty target in law to bind future governments. It didn’t survive long with Labour out of power.
Despite 98% of consultation responses disagreeing, the Coalition Government chose to scrap income-based measures of child poverty in meeting their duty to report to parliament. The 2015 welfare reform bill then abolished the child poverty target altogether.
When the prime minister stood on the steps of Downing Street, she pledged to “fight against burning injustice.” The bill that I will introduce to parliament on Friday 3rd February will test the government’s willingness to deliver on that commitment.
As in life, if you want to achieve something in government, it is useful to set a target. So my bill seeks to establish a child poverty target in legislation once again. In order to build a consensus, my approach will be to establish the principle of a target, rather than being prescriptive about all the measures it includes.
A target is necessary because we have a duty to help this generation as we did the last. Responses to my recent questions in parliament are a real cause for concern. They demonstrate the government’s misplaced priorities. Priority is given to fund a new generation of grammar schools, which the evidence shows do not deliver, while accelerating the closures of Sure Start children’s centres which we know work so well.
Since 2010, the Tories have cut investment in Sure Start by half, with over 300 local centres closing. That is not a record which matches the prime minister’s rhetoric.
The government’s long-delayed social justice green paper should follow the evidence on what works. It must respond to changes in the workplace and the wider economy.
For too many families work no longer pays. Two-thirds of children in poverty grow up in a home where at least one parent works. So tackling in-work poverty is critical. That will require policies to promote more secure work and offer support to lower earners so that they can progress to better paid jobs.
The importance of a child’s early years in forming their life chances is widely agreed. Smart investments in building the evidence base on effective early intervention should therefore be a priority.
Many families are all too aware of the challenge in finding a childcare place that is both flexible and affordable. The government should view childcare as an investment like any other and prioritise reforms which create a better fit around children and parent’s lives.
If, as the prime minister has pledged, we are to build a country that really works for everyone, then every child must have the very best start in life.
That begins by setting a target to end child poverty, because while children may be 20% of the population they are 100% of our future.