Sarah Teather speaks to Respublica about child poverty

The Children's Minister on meeting targets in the Child Poverty Act.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government
Sarah Teather

It is a great pleasure to be here today to close this conference on child poverty. Thank you to Philip, Annalise and Respublica for inviting me.

I sincerely apologise that I wasn’t able to hear the other sessions today. I understand from the programme you have been debating the relative contributions of income and early intervention to tackling child poverty.

Sometimes people unhelpfully characterise these two as opposites.

This government recognises that both are vital. That is why we are committed to the targets in the Child Poverty Act, including the relative, absolute and persistent measures.

We recognise the challenge of meeting those targets and differ with the previous government on the best means of achieving that, which I shall speak about in a minute.

But those who suggest income plays no part in child poverty are wrong.

Anyone who doubts that income matters should try living without income and see whether that changes their views.

This is why, despite the challenging financial circumstances the government is nevertheless up-rating most benefits by CPI - which is 5.2 per cent. It is also why we are increasing personal tax allowance to help those who earn least. And why I, as a Liberal Democrat Minister in the Coalition Government, want to see that process happen faster to help those in work who are still struggling.

It is also why so much of the government’s effort has been focused on getting people back into work.

Making sure we support people properly who have been out of work for some time to get back into work, or on the route to work. And trying to remove the disincentives in the system that trap people in a cycle of benefits.

This is the whole point behind universal credit - a simpler system that fits around people’s lives as they change, trying to take out the risks that people face at the moment as they move into work by making sure they are better off in work.

And that simpler system will lead to a higher take-up of benefits for those who qualify but who don’t currently claim, lifting around 300, 000 children out of poverty.

But although adequate income is a necessary pre-condition for a child meeting their potential, it is not sufficient. Other things also hold them back.

The complex causes and consequences of poverty cannot be tackled by income transfers alone.

This is most clearly evident in educational attainment.

The gaps in achievement between the poorest and the wealthiest are stark. The greatest predictor of a child’s achievement is the income of its parents and the greatest predictor of future income is a child’s attainment at school - so we have a society that entrenches disadvantage.

But what is perhaps starker is that it doesn’t have to be that way. We have come to expect that poverty will always go hand in hand with poor attainment, but in other countries it does not necessarily follow.

Something about the way our society is structured, the way our educational system works, locks that underachievement in, passing from one generation to the next. Our children are less resilient to the effects of poverty than those in other countries.

This is why we need to do better at tackling problems early, and intervening.

The evidence says that three things in the foundation years are critical for defining future outcomes: maternal health; home learning environment; quality of early years education.

This is why Government is investing in more family nurse partnerships and health visitors. Why we are beginning trials of universal parenting classes in three areas. Why we are asking children’s centres to do better at identifying and supporting the neediest families - this is the reason why we have published a new core purpose for children’s centres and are beginning payment by results.

In the early years all our effort is also currently focused on quality. We have a new foundation stage curriculum with more emphasis on child development and better communication with parents. We have commissioned a review of the Early Years workforce being undertaken by Professor Cathy Nutbrown and we are consulting on a new basket of measures of quality.

Of course none of this matters when those who most need it don’t get a chance to benefit.

Very few two-year-olds from poorer backgrounds get any chance to access early education at the moment.

So we are delivering a huge expansion in investment in free early education - we will be extending the free entitlement of 15 hours to 20 per cent of two-year-olds in 2013 expanding to 40 per cent in 2014. Making sure that the children who most need high quality early education get a chance to access it.

We are investing £760 million in this, despite the financial difficulties - demonstrating the priority this government attaches to the foundation years.

As children move from Early Years to school, we want schools to do more on helping those from poorer backgrounds, not just to reach the average, but to excel.

With the Pupil Premium we have invested £1.25 billion extra to help the most disadvantaged pupils.

We are asking schools to publish how they are spending it. We have already published how children are performing at Key Stage 2 and Key Stage 3. And Ofsted are looking at how they will hold schools to account.

So Government is playing its part in tackling child poverty and making this a priority.

But poverty is experienced differently in different areas which is why what local authorities do is so vital.

The Child Poverty Act set out the important role that local authorities have in this area and I have been able to see how they have been rising to that challenge - developing new schemes, new ways of working to tackle local problems.

Great ideas like Tyne Gateway’s innovative scheme of family entrepreneurs, employing parents to reach out to other parents. Or Reading Council’s use of parents as volunteers in early years - working as peer mentors.

Councils are developing local solutions, tailored to meet local need.

The point about peer mentor programmes and similar schemes is the way in which they breed a kind of solidarity between people, often people from different backgrounds, who have shared similar experiences but who may now be in different places in their lives.

Schemes like these work because of the basic human connection and relationships they foster - relationships that give a sense of hope about future possibilities.

It seems to me that part of the problem with the way the debate about poverty is characterised in the press is that far from supporting and fostering any kind of solidarity, it more often drives a fissure through existing societal divides. Making those gaps between people wider, even through language, puts certain groups outside society and makes it harder for them to exercise citizenship, harder for them to advocate on their own behalf, harder for them to help themselves.

Setting up two opposing groups is of course a classic rhetorical device; Romeo and Juliet; David and Goliath; or in this case the deserving and undeserving poor. But it is language we should all take care not to use. Because such divisions put our goal of ending child poverty further away from us not closer.

If we are going to succeed in making a lasting impact on child poverty, we are going to need to harness the energy of all. Government will play its part in the areas where only it can act and will make it a priority. But we will need the ideas and the skill of the voluntary and community sectors, the energy of business, the local knowledge of local authorities and health service professionals, and the commitment of everyone in this room to hold us to account.

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Published 29 February 2012