Fight against poverty must stay in spotlight

Lisa Nandy
Friday, July 8, 2011

Anyone who watched the BBC documentary Poor Kids last month will have been horrified to hear the stories, told by children themselves, about what it's like to be one of the 3.5 million children in this country who are growing up in poverty.

Watching children in damp, dirty, overcrowded housing without enough money for food, it is difficult to believe that this is an issue that is seriously in danger of falling off the political agenda. But this month, the NUT and Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) joined forces to highlight just this threat.

At a packed fringe event at this month's Compass conference, teachers and activists from up and down the country spoke compellingly about the consequences of child poverty in their communities.

The government's child poverty strategy caused concern when it was launched earlier this year, both in its approach and because it is hard to see how it can deliver. It is based on the misguided belief that worklessness is the key issue. In reality, much effort was put into tackling entrenched generational worklessness over the previous decade and child poverty for those out of work declined. The key issue now facing families across the country, including in my own Wigan constituency, is how to make work pay. This wrong-headed basis for the strategy leads ministers to the staggering conclusion that the way to tackle child poverty is to cut benefits – to families like those featured in Poor Kids who are already struggling to buy food, shoes and medicines – in order to push people into work.

Tackling child poverty requires concerted action across government. The strategy has been rightly criticised both for its approach and for removing the targets for reducing child poverty. In doing so, it removed any teeth it might have had. This simply reflects the loss of priority for the issue. The first clue was Education Secretary Michael Gove's immediate decision to rename the Department for Children, Schools and Families. This was more than just a name change, signalling a much bigger shift in the government's priorities away from the wider children's agenda to a relentless focus on education. As a result, child poverty has become sidelined. In effect, it has been demoted from a key issue dealt with by the Prime Minister to just one of many issues in a junior minister's portfolio.

Just as concerning is that child poverty seems to have largely fallen off the agenda in parliament. The government's huge reforms to the education system are reflected in the work of the education select committee, of which I am a member, in education questions and in backbench debates. Scrutiny of the wider children's agenda is in danger of being lost.

This is of great concern because there is a view among ministers – which is going largely unchallenged - that the solution for poorer children is to remove the constraints that hold them back in order that the most talented can rise to the top. It is a vision of society that creates a situation where only the brightest will succeed; a focus on the few at the expense of the many. Surely in 2011 we should have a vision of society where all children are given the support they need to succeed, not just a talented few? As CPAG chief executive Alison Garnham argued recently, it isn't single parents that cause child poverty; it's the state's response.

We should be ashamed that this issue is in danger of falling off the agenda and ashamed that we are getting it wrong for these children. We must share a collective responsibility to get this issue back onto the agenda. I want all the political parties to go into the next election with a shared consensus that a good record on child poverty is a critical test of any successful government. As 10-year-old Paige said in Poor Kids: "It doesn't get any better; it gets worse and worse as the days go on." It is our responsibility to put it right.

Lisa Nandy is the Labour MP for Wigan and a member of the education select committee

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