It is a great pleasure to see so many people here today focused on the issues of child poverty. There are few more important - or emotive - topics in politics. We all know that tackling the problem demands far more than warm words or political posturing. We recognise that money matters, whether it is measured in relative or absolute terms.
Yet we also know that dealing with child poverty demands more than just thinking about poverty in cash terms. Poverty of aspiration, lack of life chances and inequality of opportunity are all powerful factors too. So let me say right now that this Government is determined to tackle the underlying causes of child poverty - not just the symptoms.
Indeed, this is already the starting point for so many of the actions we are taking to promote greater social justice across society. It lies at the heart of our welfare reforms. And in the long run, it is the only way we will deliver the fairer and more responsible society we all want to see.
Before he became Secretary of State, Iain Duncan Smith spent years examining exactly these issues with the Centre for Social Justice. Under his lead, the Government fully recognises that far broader social issues are at play - debt, addiction, family breakdown, educational failure, and worklessness, to name but a few. Any one of these topics represents a huge social challenge in its own right.
Every person in this room will have worked with families trapped in situations where they feel it is very difficult to break out and where benefits alone are not going to provide the answer:
- families where feeding an addiction has become a greater priority than feeding the children
- working with people frightened about payday loans hanging over their heads
- or picking up the pieces after a childhood spent in the care system.
These are the type of challenges many of you deal with day in, day out. I am sure we can all agree, it is only by Government accepting that there are not going to be many quick fixes - that we can start to gain a deeper understanding of the challenges, and then work together to find ways to meet them. Accepting that there are a whole host of issues to tackle along the way also helps us to understand how best to deliver for the poorest. If I take just one statistic, I could point to the fact that we have spent £150 billion on Tax Credits alone since 2003. Yet despite the apparently vast resources being aimed mostly at families with children, real progress on child poverty all but stalled in the years that followed.
We all know what the results are today:
- 2.8 million children still living in relative poverty
- 1.6 million children still in absolute poverty, and
- almost 2 million children living in workless households - one of the worst rates in Europe.
Clearly, simply throwing money at the problem has not worked. I believe in the principles underpinning the Child Poverty Act and the Government is determined to meet the challenge it sets. So we need a new approach. That means moving away from the goal of getting every child one penny past an arbitrary income threshold. And instead, it means focusing on helping each child to move out of poverty in the real-world sense. That is why we need to start looking at child poverty through a sharper lens and start tackling the underlying issues of poverty such as education, debt and worklessness. This is also why the Government is so focused on tackling welfare dependency.
The benefits trap presents a very real barrier to many of the poorest in our country. They become isolated from broader society. They get stuck in a rut where aspiring to work and a better life actually represents a real risk to income levels. And as if all that were not bad enough, it costs the taxpayer a fortune to maintain this broken benefits system.
This is why we are so committed to fundamental welfare reform:
- completely rethinking our approach to people on incapacity so that we don’t abandon them to a life on long-term benefits
- reinventing welfare to work with one of the biggest work programmes this country has ever seen
- and just as importantly, rewriting the incentive base for jobseekers through the Universal Credit to make sure work pays.
The introduction of the Universal Credit on its own is forecast to lift some 600,000 working age adults and 350,000 children out of poverty. Yet it is the long-term behavioural changes inspired by the three legs of these welfare reforms that we expect to have a bigger impact.
We will move towards a benefit system that is there to support people when they need it, but without trapping them in a cycle of intergenerational poverty. We will move those who can work back toward employment so that we reduce the number of children who think it’s normal to have no one in the house heading out to earn a living in the morning. And at the same time, we will work to tackle some of the other big issues that too often leave children trapped in poverty. One of those is educational attainment. This is an area that has been flagged by both Graham Allen and Frank Field in reports commissioned by the Government, to help us find new ways of making a positive impact on the life chances of children.
I think everyone here today can agree just how important education and early intervention are in tackling child poverty. That’s why, for example, the Department for Education is targeting extra money at pupils from deprived backgrounds - pupils we know are at high risk of poorer outcomes. This is a key priority for the Government, which is why we are increasing the funding available under the Pupil Premium to £2.5 billion. At the same time, we recognise the huge role that local authorities play in influencing the life chances of children. As a result, we are allocating £2.2 billion this year under the Early Intervention Grant to help local leaders act more strategically and target investment early, where it will have greatest impact. This will help fund new investments such as early education and 4,200 extra health visitors to build stronger links with local health services, which can make all the difference in early years.
And of course, we are also reforming the child maintenance system to ensure that we put child welfare firmly at the centre of our policy approach and prevent the state from exacerbating potential disagreements between parents. These are just some of the many actions this Government is already taking to help children in the UK escape the poverty trap and the consequences that too often follow. We have to make taking action on child poverty a continuing priority - just as we have in these first 11 months of Government. The Child Poverty Strategy is a document that will bring together the details of all these policies and plans and it will be published very shortly.
What I can tell you is that the Government takes child poverty extremely seriously and we have quite deliberately waited to publish our strategy at the right time - not some arbitrary deadline set by the previous administration. Rather than rush the strategy out as just another piece of Government business, everyone involved has been determined to make sure it is right so that we can deliver the change that this country needs. This reinforces just how highly child poverty features on this Government’s policy agenda.
As a new Government taking a fresh approach to child poverty, there is a real determination to do our best. It is the only way we will achieve the joined-up approach we will need to make a real impact on children’s lives - in central government, at local authority level and across the third sector and civil society. Clearly, we have a great deal to do. But I am convinced that by working together, we can deliver the right solutions for the children of Britain.
That is the challenge, and I look forward to meeting it with you.