This article was written by Patrick Wintour, political editor, for The Guardian on Monday 20th October 2014
Britain is on the brink of becoming a nation permanently divided between rich and poor, according to the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission in its second annual state of the nation report.
The 335-page document is likely to be a reference point against which the government’s anti-poverty record will be judged, and to feature strongly in opposition party manifestos for the 2015 general election.
The report says all three main Westminster political parties are lamentably failing to be frank with the electorate about the fact there is no chance of meeting the government’s statutory child poverty target by 2020.
It also predicts that 2010-2020 will be the first decade since records began that saw a rise in absolute poverty – defined as a household in which income is below 60% of median earnings. A rise from 2.6 million households in absolute poverty to 3.5 million is now expected.
The chair of the commission, the former Labour cabinet minister Alan Milburn, said: “Muddling through will not do when the mismatch between needs and anti-poverty government policies are widening.”
Asked whether the government had responded to his first report, he said:
“It is like water from the stone. Our plea is not just to the current parties of government … They are great at talking the talk, the issue is whether they can walk the walk. The policies lack the scale to move the dial.”
Milburn attacked the government for failing to agree a child poverty strategy due to a coalition row.
“You cannot have a situation where government ministers first discredit a target and then fail to agree a new target and then go back to a discredited old target,” he said. “That is beyond a Whitehall farce.”
The report warns that “2020 could mark a watershed between an era in which for decades there have been rising living standards shared by all and a future era where rising living standards bypass the poorest in society.”
It suggests that the link between effort and reward, on which social mobility relies, has been broken by changes in the housing market – with home ownership rates halving among young people in 20 years – and the labour market – with 5 million workers trapped in low pay.
When combined with cuts in welfare and public spending, these changes put Britain on track to become a permanently divided nation.
The report calls on the next government to supplement the existing targets with new measures to give a more rounded picture of poverty and to amend the legislation to set out a new timescale for achieving them.
The commission made six major recommendations:
• The UK should commit to implementing a living wage by 2025 at the latest.
• The Office of Budget Responsibility should publish an assessment of each Budget for its impact on social mobility and child poverty.
• Half of all workplaces with more than 10 staff should offer quality apprenticeships.
• New forms of housing tenure through expanded shared ownership schemes and reform of the private rented sector.
• The best teachers should be paid more to teach in the worst schools to help end illiteracy and innumeracy in primary schools by 2025 and halve the attainment gap in secondary school by 2025. It suggests teachers should get a 25% pay rise to work in the most challenging schools.
• Unpaid internships to be made illegal and 5,000 more pupils from a free school meals background to be going to university by 2020. It proposes that the extra 100,000 university places by 2020 give universities a unique chance to find the extra 5,000 places, with the Russell group admitting 3,000 more places for state schools, using textual admission processes.
Milburn said internships had become a new rung on the professional ladder and were being abused by the middle classes and people from private educational backgrounds.
The report highlights that child poverty, set against the 2010 Child Poverty Act, was at a historic low in 2012-13.
But it adds:
“The bad news is that real wages are still falling while jobs are becoming less secure. Housing costs are straining the link between effort and reward that should be at the heart of a fair and socially mobile country and different parts of society are having different experiences of the recovery with big variations by income age family type and region.”
It also finds
“a higher proportion of jobs are insecure and low paid and 5 million people earn less than the living wage”.
Milburn also challenged Labour’s promise to commit to a minimum wage of £8 an hour by 2020, saying the number was less ambitious than what has been achieved in the current parliament. Labour said its policy was to raise the minimum wage to 58% of average earnings – higher than the current average.
The report also warns that money will not be available in the next parliament to drive an anti-poverty fight. Milburn said:
“The impact of welfare cuts and entrenched low pay and welfare cuts will bite between now and 2020. The pace of fiscal consolidation has been slower than anticipated, meaning over 40% has been deferred to the next parliament.
“Each of the main parties are committed to eye-wateringly tight spending cuts. None of them have made much effort to reconcile the social ends they say they want with the fiscal means to which they are committed.
“In particular plans, to cut in-work support in real terms in the next parliament can only make the working poor worse off, not better off.”
The report adds:
”The current proposal for tax-free childcare is complicated, with resources focused on those with the highest incomes – the wrong priority at a time austerity.
“In education the attainment gap remains unacceptably wide and static – almost two-thirds of children fail to achieve the basics of five GCSEs including English and maths. Poor children are less likely to be taught by good teachers.”
Source – Welfare Weekly, 24 Oct 2014
The number of children whose parents cannot find full-time work and are forced to work one or more part-time jobs has soared by 46% since the coalition government came to office, latest figures show.
Figures obtained by Newcastle Labour MP Catherine McKinnell show that between 2010 to 2013 the number of children whose parents were working part-time hours rose from 443,000 to 646,000, which Labour claim is a significant blow to the government’s child poverty strategy.
“While Ministers have been squabbling about how poverty is defined, these figures show how much tougher life is for families under David Cameron’s government.
“Getting parents into work should be the key step towards increasing their standard of living and reducing the number of children living in poverty. But for far too many families at the moment being in work just isn’t enough to meet the basic cost of living.
“Labour will back families and help to make work pay. We will expand free childcare for working parents, strengthen the minimum wage and crack down on exploitative use of zero-hours contracts. And we also want to introduce a lower 10p starting rate of tax, to help 24 million people on middle and low incomes.
“But while ordinary families are struggling with a cost-of-living crisis, David Cameron has given a £3 billion tax cut to the top one per cent of earners. We’d reverse that after the election as part of our plan to get the deficit down in a fairer way.”
The government has been forced to shelve plans to redefine the definition of child poverty which is currently defined by a households income. Children are said to be living in poverty if their parents total income is less than 60% of the national average.
Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Iain Duncan Smith MP, wanted to change the way child poverty is measured, by taking a child’s family life into account as well as a family’s income, such as a child’s education and whether or not they come from a workless household.
Iain Duncan Smith was close to securing a deal with the Liberal Democrats, but it is understood that the plans were vetoed by George Osborne at the Treasury Department.
Liberal Democrat Education Minister David Laws, told the BBC:
“I can’t get into the entrails of why the Conservatives have been unable to agree and come forward with a serious set of measures. They will have to explain that.
“What I’m not willing to do is to allow this key debate over measures which are so important in driving the right policies in future to simply be vetoed by one party.”
> “I can’t get into the entrails…” That’s a weird and rather unpleasent scenario. Bet that’ll be appearing in a future edition of Private Eye.
He added: “The Liberal Democrats have a very clear idea of what the new measures should be, and we’re not going to allow the Conservative Party simply to end discussion of this.”
Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary Rachel Reeves MP said:
“Child poverty is set to rise by 400,000 under David Cameron’s government, while ministers squabble over the way poverty is defined.
“The row between George Osborne and Iain Duncan Smith does nothing to help working people who are £1,600 worse off a year because of the cost-of-living crisis.
“If David Cameron was serious about cutting child poverty he would scrap the bedroom tax, introduce a compulsory jobs guarantee, strengthen the minimum wage, incentivise the living wage and extend free childcare for working parents.”
The former Labour MP who chairs the current government’s Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, Alan Milburn, said: “A strategy which cannot be measured is meaningless.
“Despite taking more than a year to think about it, the government has drawn a blank, apparently unable to reach agreement on what a new set of measures should look like.
“The government has ended up in a no-man’s land where it has effectively declared its lack of faith in the current measures but has failed to produce an alternative set. This is beyond Whitehall farce.”
> The last few years have been a Whitehall farce… it’s just a pity Labour didn’t feel the need to start kicking up before. I’m sure the proximity to the next General Election is purely coincidental…
Source – Welfare News Service, 04 March 2014