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Government risk undermining years of progress on child poverty

Last week the Government announced that they are to change the definition of child poverty. In the next breath they scrapped a legally binding commitment to eradicate child poverty by 2020. 

They have not just moved the goalposts, they’ve dismantled them and ploughed up the pitch.

Labour’s Child Poverty Act, passed with all-party support, enshrined in law a target to reduce to zero the level of child poverty by 2020. It was more than a target. As Stuart Lansley puts it, it was a clear statement of the social obligation to tackle child poverty and followed years of good progress.  

But five years on, poverty levels are creeping back up. In London 37% or 1.8 million children live in poverty. One in every seven poor kids in the UK lives in the capital, placing it comfortably top of the national league table.  By 2020, say the forecasters, child poverty will return to the high point of the late 1990s – around 3.5 million.

Our experiences in Lambeth are bearing these figures out. In 2012 the council adopted a comprehensive “Financial Resilience Strategy." It is, in practice, a series of targeted initiatives designed to help people at risk of debt and homelessness. We are in the process of revising that strategy and last week held a workshop with community groups and charities working on the front line. They gave first hand accounts of the sort of day to day struggles their clients are facing.  

One volunteer told us that many of the people she sees are using up their two times per month food bank usage then doing without. A worker at a local advice agency said many are still using pay day lenders as you can get the money quickly and with little or no paperwork. Benefits sanctions have increased and in work poverty is a noticeable trend, as people struggle with low paid and insecure work. This is also making claiming tax credits more difficult. It was a pity Iain Duncan Smith could not be there.

The worry is that a bad situation is about to get worse. 

Universal Credit is likely to be rolled out in Lambeth early next year, bringing with it a minefield of uncertainty. The switch to monthly payment in arrears and  tenants paying their landlord directly could lead to increases in rent arrears and indebtedness. More worryingly, there is real concern system of payment to just one person in the household, increases the vulnerability women and children in abusive relationships.

Secondly, a further reduction in the benefit cap will have a disproportionate impact on children, especially those living in London where living costs are so much higher. Most of the affected households are larger families and 35% have more than five children. An internal Government forecasts that the change will push an extra 40,000 children into poverty.

One solution is for the Government to follow Lambeth’s lead and champion the Living Wage. We are proud to be a London Living Wage accredited employer, meaning all our staff receive at least £9.15 per hour. With 2 in 3 poor children nowadays in families where someone is in work, more must be done to tackle in-work poverty. They could start by making the Minimum Wage a Living Wage.  

Tackling child poverty remains a priority for Lambeth. And what we can realistically do as a local authority to address these issues will at the forefront of our minds as we re-shape our Financial Resilience Strategy. The Government on the other hand appears to be turning their back on the problem. In doing so they risk undermining years of progress.  

Cllr Paul McGlone, Deputy Leader of Lambeth Council

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