It’s well known that the Welfare Reform and Work Act 2016 abolished the child poverty eradication targets, based on income and deprivation measures, and the associated duty to develop a child poverty strategy. What was not made clear was that the Child Poverty Unit (CPU), established to progress the strategy, would also be abolished. This only emerged recently thanks to questioning by Dan Jarvis MP, who is introducing a Private Members’ Bill to reintroduce child poverty targets on 3 February.
The CPU was a cross-departmental unit, co-sponsored by the Departments for Education and Work and Pensions (DWP), and the Treasury. This gave it a special status in recognition of the fact that effective action against poverty requires action across government departments. Its abolition is widely seen as downgrading and weakening the government machinery dedicated to the eradication of child poverty. Its functions have now been transferred to the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), but it’s not clear from responses to parliamentary probing whether it continues as an identifiable unit or whether the transferred civil servants have simply been absorbed into the DWP’s general work.
What is now clear, from a written parliamentary answer, is that the government had quietly been running down the CPU well before it moved to abolish the child poverty targets: in 2012/13 23.3 full time equivalent staff were employed in the unit; by 2015/16 the complement had been reduced by more than half to 10.5.
When asked by Imran Hussain MP to explain why the CPU had been closed, the Secretary of State Damian Green responded that “the main function of the child poverty unit was to support Ministers in meeting the Child Poverty Act 2010, which has now been superseded by the Welfare Reform and Work Act 2016, whereby the response specifically to poverty is being led by my Department, so the unit is now working inside the DWP. That is the straightforward answer”. Well, that may be the ‘straightforward’ answer but it’s not a satisfactory one.
I therefore followed it up with an oral question in the Lords. The initial answer didn’t even answer the question: “tacking child poverty and disadvantage is a priority for this Government, and we are convinced that there is a better approach than the one driven by the Child Poverty Act 2010 income-related targets. This is why we replaced them with statutory measures of parental worklessness and children’s educational attainment...”. The answer to my follow-up question wasn’t much better.
Having pointed out that it didn’t answer my question, I asked the Minister (Lord Henley) to “explain how the abolition of a cross-departmental unit co-sponsored by the Department for Education is consistent with the Government’s own analysis of the root causes of poverty as partly lying in children’s educational achievement?”.
“Surely”, I suggested, “their own approach, which rejects what they call a narrow income-based approach, strengthens rather than weakens the case for a cross-departmental unit?”
His response was that the purpose of the CPU “was to measure the income-related targets set up by the previous Government. Those targets were a waste of time and we got rid of them. We have now set up something better – the Social Mobility Commission secretariat, based in the Department for Education”.
Similarly, when the Bishop of Durham asked whether the Minister recognised “that the abolition of the CPU does not hint at good joined-up structures?”, he assured him that they did “have joined-up government on this matter. We have the Social Mobility Commission secretariat based in the Department for Education, which looks at these issues cross-party”.
Yet the same legislation that abolished the child poverty targets also removed ‘child poverty’ from the Commission’s title and remit. The Commission now simply has ‘a duty to assess progress in improving social mobility in the UK and to promote social mobility in England’. This was reflected in its latest State of the Nation report, which said nothing about child poverty as such, unlike previous reports, which had provided valuable critical commentary on the issue.
We now have no child poverty targets, no child poverty strategy and no dedicated cross-departmental CPU. It’s therefore difficult to take seriously the Government’s repeated assurance that ‘tackling child poverty and disadvantage is a priority’.
Member of the House of Lords and Emeritus Professor, Loughborough University