The recession will make it more difficult for the government to meet its pledge to end child poverty, ministers admitted yesterday as they issued details of plans to place a legal duty on them to eradicate child poverty by 2020.
Until now ministers have primarily defined the abolition of child poverty as ensuring that no households with children earn less than 60% of contemporary median earnings. But in a consultation paper issued yesterday, they raised the prospect of adding a new target: to reduce absolute poverty, which is seen by some as an easier target to achieve than cutting relative poverty.
The consultation paper suggests the proposed new target could be met even if between 5 and 10% of households with children still have an income of below 60% of median earnings.
The new legal duty to end child poverty would be monitored by an independent commission empowered to advise ministers on how to meet its target. A three-year rolling programme setting out how the government was doing in meeting its target would also be published.
A duty may also be placed on local councils to reduce child poverty in their area.
Two years after ousting the Tories in 1997, Tony Blair set the Labour government the ambitious target of halving child poverty by 2010 and abolishing it altogether by 2020.
Though 600,000 children have been lifted out of poverty since the pledge was made in 1999 – when 3.4 million children lived in poverty – progress appears to have stalled in the past two years. In March last year, the work and pensions select committee warned that the interim target to halve child poverty by 2010 was likely to be missed by one million.
Yesterday government sources said the new package was designed to head off a further rise in child poverty during the recession. A government source acknowledged : "We have seen that during previous recessions child poverty increases. Today's announcement is about short-term action to stop long-term decline."
The department of work and pensions is also promising to pay for childcare for parents on benefits who are placed under a new requirement to prepare for work.
Ministers believe the legal duty to meet the target is analogous to the legal duty on ministers to cut carbon emissions by 80% by 2050. Under the carbon legislation, ministers can be subject to judicial review if the independent government advisory body decrees that they are knowingly introducing policies that will mean the climate change targets will not be met.
Tim Nichols of the Child Poverty Action Group said: "We know it does need to be a basket of measures, because we know the median income may drop during a recession. Relative measures of poverty do not pick upon the increase in material deprivation that will take place in a recession."
Ministers said they hoped the Tories would commit themselves to the new legal duty to meet the child poverty target. But Conservative sources pointed out yesterday that in the consultation document ministers had given themselves a legal escape clause by saying that their duty to meet the target was subject to "overall affordability and the fiscal position".
Theresa May, the shadow work and pensions secretary said: "If the government could tackle child poverty by publishing consultations and action plans, child poverty would not have risen by 100,000 for the past two years. [This] is just a smokescreen designed to deflect attention from the fact ministers will fail to meet their pledge to halve child poverty by 2010.
Copyright Speakers Corner 2016