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Concern at Government plans to scrap legal requirements to end child poverty

By Andrew Woodcock

Anti-poverty campaigners have voiced deep concern over Government plans to ditch legal requirements to lift children out of relative poverty.

Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith announced plans to replace Labour's Child Poverty Act, which established a duty for governments to eradicate the problem by 2020, with new legislation which will instead require ministers to report regularly on measures affecting a child's life chances.

In a statement to MPs, Mr Duncan Smith said he was scrapping the official measures and targets used in the 2010 Act, which defines a child as being in poverty if it is in a household with less than 60% of the national median average income.

The measure was deeply flawed because it meant that child poverty was dependent on unrelated factors which had no effect on real children's lives, he said. Child poverty could be officially reduced by a slump in the economy or increased by a hike in state pensions, he pointed out.

Labour denounced the move as "the death knell of compassionate conservatism".

Acting shadow work and pensions secretary Stephen Timms said: "Their manifesto said they would work to reduce child poverty, instead they have decided to change the definition."

But Mr Duncan Smith insisted: "Eradicating child poverty is an absolute priority for this Government, and I have consistently argued that it is not enough to tackle the symptoms without also tackling the underlying causes.

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"The measures announced today are the foundation of a new, comprehensive way of addressing poverty and reflect our conviction that work is the best route out of poverty.

"Our new approach will drive effective Government action by focusing attention on making meaningful change to children's life chances."

The new law will introduce measures on educational attainment and numbers of children in workless households, while ministers will also be required to report on levels of family breakdown, problem debt and drug and alcohol addiction.

The long-expected change came after a report from the four UK children's commissioners warned child poverty rates across the UK were "unacceptably high".

The Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) accused the Government of "turning its back on poor children" ahead of further cuts to welfare expected to be announced in next week's Budget.

CPAG chief executive Alison Garnham said: "Today's statement isn't about strengthening efforts to end child poverty but about burying the failure of the Government's child poverty approach. And with more cuts coming down the line, child poverty is set to rise.

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"Two thirds of poor children are in working families - it's unclear whether these children will be counted as poor in the future ... A child poverty strategy which excludes income isn't a child poverty strategy."

Barnado's expressed "deep concern" about the move and urged the Government not to scrap its legal commitment to tackle child poverty. Chief executive Javed Khan said: "With every day that passes more families tell Barnardo's they face debt, hunger and homelessness because low wages and benefits changes have left them unable to pay for the basics. Tinkering with the way we measure poverty will only mask, not relieve, the daily misery of their lives."

Peter Grigg, director of external affairs at The Children's Society, said: "Today the Government has decided to break its promise to end child poverty by 2020 ... Income is at the heart of child poverty. Ignoring it will only mean more ineffective policies that continue to fail. This will condemn increasing numbers of children to live below the breadline, which is a national disgrace."

The announcement comes after a review of the relative poverty measure commissioned by Mr Duncan Smith in 2013. He told MPs that the measure resulted in "unintended consequences" as action was focused on lifting children above the 60% line rather than on tackling the root causes of their disadvantage.

"Governments will no longer just focus on moving families above a poverty line, instead we want to focus on making a meaningful change to children's lives by extending opportunity for all so both they and their children can escape from the cycle of poverty and improve their life chances," he said.

"This process marks a shift, I hope, from solely measuring inputs of expenditure to measuring the outcomes of children-focused policy."

Mr Timms said: "David Cameron's Government is trying to make child poverty go away by pretending that if you don't measure it, it doesn't exist.

"Ministers should be tackling low pay, boosting productivity and raising skill levels to cut child poverty, rather than threatening the tax credits that millions of working families rely on. It's time for this Government to make work pay, rather than making working families pay."

But the Labour chairman of the House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee, Frank Field, said: "This is a really welcome start. But we mustn't flit around with general aspirations about educational attainment when we know life chances are determined before children enter school.

"So the measure therefore must look at whether we are equalising life opportunities for the poorest children before they reach school, and that definition will then drive policy to achieve those objectives."

Mr Duncan Smith also announced that the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, chaired by Labour's former minister Alan Milburn, is to be renamed the Social Mobility Commission, with a remit to ensure independent scrutiny and advocacy of ways to boost people's life prospects.

Mr Milburn said abolishing the legal targets "doesn't make the issue of child poverty go away" but accepted it was sensible to have a "more rounded" way of measuring the problem.

"For that reason we welcome the new legal duties on worklessness and educational attainment," he said.

"It is not credible, however, to try to improve the life chances of the poor without acknowledging the most obvious symptom of poverty, lack of money. Unless the Government sets out a clear target for improving the life chances of the poorest families, its agenda for healing social division in our country will lack both ambition and credibility.

"Abolishing the legal targets doesn't make the issue of child poverty go away. It remains a deep scar in the fabric of our nation. The key issue is less how child poverty is measured and more how it is tackled."

In response to Mr Duncan Smith's intention to change the commission's remit, Mr Milburn said: "Ultimately, it is a matter for Parliament to determine the basis on which the commission operates, but in the meantime the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission will continue to function on its present basis. We will publish our annual state of the nation report in the autumn as usual."

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Statisticians raised concerns about the abandonment of the relative poverty measure.

Hetan Shah, executive director of the Royal Statistical Society, said: "We are concerned that adding other indicators into an income-based measure of poverty could hinder comparison between children in the UK and elsewhere.

"The European Union, international league tables compiled by the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) and the United Nations all use a definition of household income relative to the median.

"Technically it could be very difficult to combine other measures together in a way that achieves what the Government wants it to, and could also potentially conflate the causes and symptoms of poverty."

TUC general secretary Frances O'Grady said Mr Duncan Smith's announcement "marks the return of the 'Nasty Party' and is a further nail in the coffin for one-nation conservatism".

Ms O'Grady said: "Abandoning the child poverty targets instead of delivering fair pay and a decent welfare safety net is a desperate act from a Government that knows its policies will push at least a million more children into poverty."

David Holmes, chair of the End Child Poverty Coalition, said: "Five years ago, all the main political parties promised to act to end child poverty by 2020. Today the Government decided to pull the teeth from the Child Poverty Act, and break its promise to the millions of children who live in poverty in Britain today.

"The Government has made the extraordinary step of no longer recognising that child poverty is, at its heart, about families not having enough money to live on."

Gareth Jenkins, director of UK poverty at Save the Children, said: "Today's decision is wrong. The Government has decided that the best way of combating child poverty is not to redouble their efforts but to shift the goalposts.

"The Government is right to focus on work as a route out of poverty, but that means helping all families both in and out of work who currently cannot provide enough to raise a family.

"The announcement to enshrine in law reporting on how many disadvantaged children are falling behind at GCSE and focus on workless households would be useful additions to the Child Poverty Act, but they are not in any way adequate alternatives."

Julia Unwin, chief executive of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, said: "JRF agrees that raising educational attainment and getting people into work are central to addressing poverty, as well as giving children the opportunities they deserve. We welcome the addition of new indicators because poverty is complex - they must, however, clearly measure their direct effects on poverty.

"But evidence shows that income matters to children's outcomes and removing the measure from government policy would be a mistake. The current two proposed measures will miss the many families who have one or more parents in work but have very low incomes which damage children's lives now and prospects for the future."

Kathleen Spencer Chapman, head of UK policy at Oxfam, said: "Oxfam is concerned by the Government's announcement to scrap the relative income measurement of poverty from the Child Poverty Act 2010.

"Income, or rather the lack of a decent income, is at the heart of what it means to be poor in the UK. The Government agreed with that in its consultation on poverty measurements in 2013, so why the need for a change today?

"Other measures such as educational attainment or in-work poverty rates are important too, but losing the relative income measurement will set us back in the fight against child poverty."

4Children's chief executive Imelda Redmond said: "After last week's news that there are 2.3 million children too many living in poverty in the UK, we should today be hearing about the Government's immediate action to get that number down.

"Instead we hear the Government's plans to abandon an internationally-recognised measure which will ignore one of the most fundamental factors of child poverty: having too little money to raise your family.

"It is right to recognise that work should be a route out of poverty, but with two thirds of children in poverty living in working households that is clearly currently not enough.

"Instead of abandoning a target to eliminate child poverty which they signed up to - we need to hear this Government's action plan on how to end it."

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