Interview: Alison Garnham, chief executive, Child Poverty Action Group


Labour's flagship pledge to halve child poverty by 2010 may have been missed, but claims that the target is too difficult to hit are strenuously denied by Alison Garnham, Child Poverty Action Group's (CPAG) new chief executive.

"My response is the target is nowhere near ambitious enough," she says. "Many other countries hit the same target so we know it is possible. Even after the cuts, this country is much better off now than in the 1980s. So there really is no excuse."

Garnham joined CPAG in September, after spending four years as the Daycare Trust's chief executive. Previously director of policy and research at One Parent Families, she also worked for CPAG in 1989, where she campaigned on child support legislation and highlighted the links between lone parents and child poverty.

The effects of poverty on families continues to be a big issue for Garnham, who feels the coalition has so far focused its deficit reduction plan too much on families and children.

"It's a big concern that cuts have already fallen heavily on mothers and families with children," she says. "Cutting child benefit for higher earners is short-sighted. We will be campaigning against this, as again families with children are being expected to bear the brunt of the cuts."

Garnham is also against the scrapping of the Health In Pregnancy Grant - a £190 payment to all pregnant women beyond their 25th week of pregnancy. "We know children's life chances can be affected in pregnancy and the grant acknowledged that," she explains. "Cutting it is a backwards step, as is getting rid of the baby element of the child tax credit and limiting the Sure Start maternity grant to the first child in a family."

She believes the government was wrong to decide to tackle the budget deficit with a ratio of 80 per cent spending cuts to 20 per cent tax rises, and says a more even starting point could have led to better outcomes. She will be following tomorrow's comprehensive spending review (on 20 October) closely to see what its impact will be on the poorest families. "Even after the announcement it's likely we will not know all of the detail," she says. "We must remember that cuts will be taking place throughout the whole of parliament and it will be up to us to be at the forefront, looking at what this means for families in poverty."

But Garnham welcomes Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith's plans to make work pay and tackle the situation where some of the poorest people in the country face huge penalties for trying to get off benefits and into work. She says: "Duncan Smith and others are prepared to talk the talk - they accept poverty exists and are concerned about social mobility. But now we need to see them walk the walk.

"The national minimum wage could be raised considerably and the jobs market needs to be more flexible. There needs to be much more emphasis on work/life balance, flexible working for both parents and better childcare provision."

Garnham also believes investing in early years is key to tackling child poverty, and is hoping Labour MP Frank Field's seven-month review into poverty and life chances will help add to the picture. "I hope the government will recognise the importance of early years, and that includes Sure Start," she says. "Sure Start should continue to be universal as children benefit from a mixed environment. But funding for Sure Start remains a worry. Local authorities will no doubt be wondering how they will be able to sustain their services with the cuts they are facing. They are going to need continued government support."

But Garnham says whatever the future holds, she is looking forward to working with the government and passing on her knowledge. "What is needed is a consultation with specialist organisations that are experts in their field and have knowledge the government will benefit from. But first, we need to know much more about what it has planned to tackle child poverty."

POVERTY STATS - The state of child poverty in the UK

- Nearly four million children are living in poverty in the UK (after housing costs)

- The proportion of children living in poverty grew from one in 10 in 1979 to one in three in 1998

- The majority (59 per cent) of poor children live in a household where at least one adult works

- Forty per cent of poor children live in a lone-parent household

- Thirty-eight per cent of children in poverty are from families with three or more children

- Since 1999, when the Labour government pledged to end child poverty, 550,000 children have been lifted out of poverty.

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