Ministers insisted yesterday they were trying to be “more ambitious” about tackling child poverty with controversial plans to change the way it is measured.
Liberal Democrat Schools Minister David Laws, appearing alongside Conservative Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith, denied that their proposals were about “massaging the figures”.
They want to move away from the previous Labour government’s focus on relative household income as an indicator of child poverty and use a “multi- dimensional” measure which takes into account factors like worklessness, family stability and parents’ health and skills.
But the move has led to concern among some campaigners that the coalition is trying to duck commitments to abolishing child poverty by 2020.
Launching a consultation on the plans at Clyde Children’s Centre in Deptford, south east London, Mr Duncan Smith acknowledged that money “matters” but insisted it was not “absolutely representative of a child’s life chances”.
“A fixation on the element of relative income or driving people over an arbitrary line does little to identify those entrenched in disadvantage or to transform their lives,” he said.
The new measure would provide a much better indication of how many children are in poverty and to what degree, he said.
“It must be robust in showing the total number of children living in poverty in the UK and the severity of the problem.”
Mr Laws said income would “always be at the heart of what it means to be poor”. But other factors need to be taken into consideration as well.
“Child poverty in the UK is way too high. It’s at unacceptable levels and it has been for too long. This consultation is about being more ambitious as a country, not being less ambitious.”
Mr Laws added: “It’s not about massaging the figures.”
Barnardo’s chief executive Anne Marie Carrie said: “Debating how child poverty is measured must not distract from the urgent need for action to improve the life chances of children currently growing up in families that are languishing below the breadline.
“We know that children growing up in low-income households are more likely to suffer from chronic illness, do less well in education, and struggle to find work on leaving school, which is why Barnardo’s urges the Government to keep measuring income but also to help families climb their way up and out of the poverty trap by helping them to manage debt, understand what benefits they are entitled to and manage the impact of rising fuel prices.”
Single-parent families charity Gingerbread said ministers were right to retain income as a “core measure” of child poverty and welcomed the focus on parental skills and employment.
Chief executive Fiona Weir said: “Growing up in a single-parent family does not and should not dictate whether a child lives in poverty. Countries such as Finland and Denmark, which have similar proportions of single parents to the UK, have virtually eradicated child poverty and the Government must look to those countries for lessons on how to achieve this.”
The Pre-school Learning Alliance agreed that child poverty should not be judged solely against financial indicators but said many families on the lowest incomes would be hit by the coalition’s cuts to benefits and tax credits.
Chief executive Neil Leitch said: “It is also equally important that the Government continues to recognise the role that high-quality childcare provision plays in children’s early years to help give them the best start in life and does not lose sight of this important resource, particularly in areas of disadvantage.”