Child poverty funds should be targeted at first five years, says Field

3 Dec 10
The strategy for tackling child poverty should be overhauled, with more funding targeted during the first five years of life, according to a major review published today

By Lucy Phillips

3 December 2010

The strategy for tackling child poverty should be overhauled, with more funding targeted during the first five years of life, according to a major review published today.

The review, by former Labour Cabinet minister Frank Field, says there is ‘overwhelming evidence’ that a child’s life chances are determined between birth and the age of five. It is during that period that good public services in health, education and childcare matter most, alongside good parenting.

Prime Minister David Cameron commissioned Field as his ‘poverty czar’ to conduct the review in June. It is likely to inform the government’s own child poverty strategy, due to be published in March.

The previous Labour government failed to meet its pledge to halve child poverty by 2010/11 and Field warns that meeting its other target – to eradicate it altogether by 2020 – would require ‘very large amounts of money’. This was unrealistic in the current drive to reduce the public deficit.

Field calls for the issue to be addressed in ‘a fundamentally different way’, beginning by establishing the period from birth to five as the first pillar of the education system. This stage should be given equal status to primary and secondary education, with funding gradually moved across.

Funding also needs to be weighted much more towards the most disadvantaged under-fives, with benefits assessed on a yearly basis and not automatically increased for all children.

The former welfare minister also calls for the new ‘Fairness Premium’, announced in the October Comprehensive Spending Review, to begin in pregnancy to help support disadvantaged parents. The £7.2bn payment is intended to give more support to poor children throughout their education but currently would begin with more free childcare at the age of two.

Current early years services – including children’s centres, private and voluntary sector nurseries, and support to parents from GPs, midwives and health visitors – are criticised in the report for being too ‘fragmented’ and difficult for the most disadvantaged people to access.

The report The foundation years: preventing poorchildren becoming poor adults recommends that councils should open up the commissioning of children’s centres to service providers from all sectors, including mutuals and community groups. Local authorities should also aim to make children’s centres the ‘hub’ of the local community, providing services such as birth registration, naming ceremonies and issuing child benefits. 

In a letter in response to Field, Cameron welcomed the findings, adding: ‘It is clear that we need to broaden and lengthen our concept of poverty: to look at poverty in the round, and over time.’

Imran Hussain, head of policy for the Child Poverty Action Group, commented: ‘There are some good ideas on early years in Frank Field's report, but we must avoid too narrow a focus and retain the broad strategy across income, disability, fair pay, childcare, housing and basic living costs that attracted cross party support during the passage of the Child Poverty Act.’

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