The Government’s new draft child poverty strategy has been branded “a serious missed opportunity” by David Cameron’s social mobility tsar Alan Milburn.
Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith’s failure to reach agreement with Chancellor George Osborne over his plan to rewrite the official definition of policy was “beyond Whitehall farce”, said Mr Milburn, who urged ministers to go back to the drawing board.
The strategy, which was released for consultation by Mr Duncan Smith in a written statement to Parliament, restates the Government’s commitment to end child poverty by 2020 and promises to “tackle poverty at its source” but contains no new policy proposals to help the poorest families.
After reportedly clashing with Mr Osborne over his heavily-trailed plans to rewrite the definition of poverty to include factors like educational opportunity, worklessness and parental addiction, Mr Duncan Smith has agreed to put the idea on hold, saying in a joint article with the Chancellor that “this is such an important issue – it is vitally important that we take the time to get it right”.
The new document lists a range of existing policies which might help children living in poverty over the coming three years, from support for childcare to free school meals, discounts on energy bills and increases in the threshold for paying income tax.
Mr Duncan Smith said the strategy focuses on the “underlying causes” of poverty, such as worklessness, and his Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) highlighted the reduction to 274,000 in the number of children living in workless households – the lowest on record.
The DWP said academic evidence published alongside the strategy showed it was possible to “confidently conclude” that the key factor for child poverty now is parental worklessness, with other main factors including low parental qualifications, parental ill health, family instability and family size, and that the most influential factor increasing the risk that a poor child will grow up to be a poor adult is educational attainment.
But Mr Milburn, the chairman of the Government’s Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission (SMCPC), said the strategy “sidestepped” the fact that the situation on poverty has been “stagnating”, with independent projections that it will rise significantly by the end of the decade.
“Two-thirds of child poverty is now found in working households. In three-quarters of those families, someone works full-time. That is why we called for the new child poverty strategy to deliver an ambitious detailed step-by-step plan for how the Government will meet the 2020 targets,” wrote Mr Milburn in a blog.
Instead, he said the new document was “a list, not a strategy” which failed to engage with expectations that the 2020 target to eradicate child poverty “will be missed by a country mile”.