What's the point of the Child Poverty Bill? By the Institute for Fiscal Studies

20 Nov 09
INSTITUTE FOR FISCAL STUDIES | One of the 13 bills in the recent Queen's Speech was the Child Poverty Bill, carried over from the previous Parliamentary Session.

One of the 13 bills in the recent Queen's Speech was the Child Poverty Bill, carried over from the previous Parliamentary Session. The most eye-catching part of the Bill is the duty it would place on the secretary of state for work and pensions to ensure that child poverty in 2020/21 is eradicated (how eradication is defined is discussed below). But it would also establish a Child Poverty Commission to advise the government on its strategy, require future governments to publish a strategy and report annually on progress, and place duties on local authorities and other "delivery partners" in England to work together to tackle child poverty, as the House of Commons Library explains.

It is hard to argue against most of the aspects of the Bill: if a government is seeking to eradicate child poverty, then it will clearly help to have annual reports on progress, an identifiable strategy, and for local authorities to work with, rather than against, central government. But critics of the Bill argue that all of these things can happen without a new Act of Parliament, and indeed have been happening: the current Government used to publish an annual report on its anti-poverty strategy, known as Opportunity for All , the Treasury has published several documents on its strategy to reduce child poverty, and local authorities can currently be assessed against their performance in reducing the number of children in workless families on benefits, teenage pregnancies and NEETs in their area. A official Child Poverty Commission is likely to help policy-making and enrich public debate, but groups including CPAG have argued that the Commission needs more independence, along the lines of the Climate Change Commission, and to be resourced adequately, perhaps in line with the Low Pay Commission. My very positive experience as a member of the National Equality Panel tells me that these sort of advisory bodies need strong support from a secretariat, and a budget with which to commission research, to be truly effective.

Those with a more cynical mind would accuse the government of introducing this Bill to try to hide its predicted failure to meet its target for child poverty in 2010/11. As I argued to the Public Bill Committee, if the Government misses its target - which it almost certainly will unless the Chancellor announces an unprecedented rise in tax credits in December's Pre-Budget Report - then it will be because it was not able to find the money to make benefits and tax credits generous enough to lift enough children out of poverty. It is not clear why the government is unwilling to meet its own target for 2010/11, but keen to bind its successors to more stringent targets. Furthermore, it is also unclear what consequences would follow if child poverty in 2020 was above the levels specified in the Bill, particularly as, given current delays in processing data, this might not be known until 2022.

But, in my mind, the worrying aspect of the Bill is that it highlights income-based measures of child poverty over all other possible measures of child well-being. Although the Bill says that a government strategy must tackle socio-economic disadvantage amongst children, the way we will know whether child poverty is eradicated in 2020 will be determined by four measures of income poverty. It is clearly ridiculous to argue that child poverty is not about income, but I have argued before that, by not including any other sort of measures or targets, but there is a risk that politicians will always favour policy responses with immediate and predictable impacts on the incomes of parents over responses which mitigate the impact of poverty on children, or improve poor children's well-being, or reduce the intergenerational transmission of child poverty (such as measures to tackle low achievement amongst white boys in receipt of free school meals, whose results at Key Stage 2 were recently revealed to be lower than all other ethnic groups) . An annual state-of-the-nation report on children, and a wider set of targets and indicators that covered all aspects of children's and parents' lives, would make it more likely that future governments' policy response was more balanced, and in the best interests of children in poverty.

Mike Brewer
This post first appeared as an Institute for Fiscal Studies Observation

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