Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

A scar on the nation’s soul

The government has pledged to eradicate child poverty.
It’s going to need a comprehensive strategy to do it

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Child poverty is, as Gordon Brown rightly put it, ‘a scar on the nation’s soul and an affront to our sense of decency as a nation’. It is one of the most pressing issues the government faces and an important subject for this first Progress special supplement.

When Labour came to power, one in three of Britain’s children had been condemned, thanks to the Tories’ economic mismanagement and their disregard for the plight of the poor, to a life on the margins of society. Growing up in families where the opportunity for their parents to work had been denied, where the public services they were dependent upon were falling apart and where direct financial assistance to those in the greatest need had been pared back to a minimum.

Today, millions of children still live in poverty in this country, but the relentless growth in child poverty has been slowed – and is steadily being reversed. In 1999 the Prime Minister set a target of eradicating child poverty in a generation and halving it by 2010. ‘Poverty should not be a birthright. Being poor should not be a life sentence,’ he said at the time. ‘We need to break the cycle of disadvantage so that children born into poverty are not condemned to social exclusion and deprivation.’

As Chancellor, Gordon Brown has been the driving force behind the government’s strategy to achieve this long-term goal, with a comprehensive plan to improve the public services on which families with children depend and drive up the incomes on which they rely.

This strategy was outlined in Tackling Child Poverty: Giving Every Child the Best Possible Start in Life, a consultation document published by the Treasury in December. It showed that since Labour came to power, a record rise in Child Benefit, combined with an array of new tax credits and other measures, means that 1.2 million fewer children are living in poverty than otherwise would have been the case. We should not forget, as Alistair Darling argues in our interview with him, that enabling parents who are able to, to work is critical to bringing down child poverty.

The fight against child poverty is, however, not purely a financial issue. Investing in the public services upon which poor families are most heavily dependent (but by which they are often most badly served) has to be an essential element of the government’s strategy as well. As Estelle Morris notes in her article, education is one of the most important weapons in our battle against child poverty. For children to thrive at school, though, they must be healthy, which is why the work of the Department of Health, outlined by Yvette Cooper, is so crucial.

With tougher economic times upon us, some have suggested the government may have to choose between tackling poverty or improving public services and that, politically, the latter is more important than the former. As Tom Watson argues this is a false choice and simply a tired reworking of the old middle England versus the ‘heartlands’ debate which Progress has rejected in the past.

As an internationalist party, Labour must never forget that the fight against child poverty must be fought on a global level, too, and it is to be welcomed that both Clare Short and Gordon Brown have been at the forefront of this battle.

We also highlight the fact that the campaign against child poverty isn’t simply about government action. As Graeme Brown and Angela Penrose make clear, it also needs the active engagement of civil society as well. Just as importantly – as our campaign toolkit highlights – it’s a fight that party members can play a critical role in pushing for within their local communities.

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Robert Philpot

is a contributing editor to Progress magazine and former director of Progress

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