Poor families facing a 'triple whammy' of benefit, support and service cuts
The coalition's policies could do more harm even than Thatcher, says Alison Garnham, head of the Child Poverty Action Group
Alison Garnham believes that the coalition government is in danger of emulating Margaret Thatcher's record on poverty. "It has been said her governments did two things for poverty: they increased it, then they pretended it did not exist. The coalition must avoid a similar, devastating legacy," she warns.
Garnham, chief executive of the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG), acknowledges that the signs do not look promising for struggling families. Following the chancellor's autumn statement, the Treasury was forced to admit that another 100,000 children would be pushed into poverty as a result of the government's policies, such as freezing the child element of the working tax credit. A month earlier, research by the Institute for Fiscal Studies forecast that the number of children in poverty would rise by 800,000 by 2020 – despite the government signing up to Labour's target of ending child poverty by that date.
The latest noises from David Cameron suggest that he wants to move the goalposts on how child poverty is measured. A child is considered to be in relative poverty if they are in a household living below 60% of the UK median income, but the prime minister argues that comparing relative incomes leads to perverse incentives and does little to promote better life chances.
"We're not going to help those children by redefining child poverty or pretending they don't exist," Garnham responds, pointing to Cameron's 2006 Scarman lecture, in which he stated that his party got it wrong in the 1980s by ignoring relative poverty.
Garnham is resolute in her determination to hold the government to the legally binding targets to end child poverty enshrined in last year's Child Poverty Act. At her disposal is an arsenal that includes reams of evidence demonstrating the detrimental effects of child poverty on health, education and wellbeing. Garnham is also forthright about the potentially devastating impact of government policies. After the autumn statement, she was widely quoted as saying: "Britain's poorest families have been abandoned and left to face the worst." She has also decried the government for not just ignoring warnings of rising child poverty but for having "actively decided to let child poverty rise".
The charity has a long history of action and success. Since the 1960s it has challenged government policy both in the courts and through high-profile lobbying. In the 1980s, it won the right for women to receive carers benefits on the grounds of sex discrimination, and it successfully orchestrated a campaign to save child benefit, which was then under threat from a Conservative government. What saved it, Garnham recalls, was the anger of women in the Conservative party.
Next year, CPAG will take up the cause again with a major campaign that will build on the groundswell of opinion against the coalition's scrapping of universal child benefit. Garnham reads to me some of the early responses to a CPAG online survey among mothers to demonstrate how much the payment is valued. "It goes straight to my kids and it is them that [the government will] hit," says one. "All my child benefit is spent entirely on the children," says another.
Garnham joined the charity in September last year – for the second time after a six-year stint as a welfare rights training officer some 20 years earlier – and has already incurred the wrath of the welfare secretary, Iain Duncan Smith. CPAG had called for a judicial review of the government's housing benefit caps – it was unsuccessful in its bid to have them overturned – which Duncan Smith criticised, in an uncharacteristic outburst, as an "ill-judged PR stunt" that was "ridiculous" and irresponsible".
Garnham, 52, an erstwhile campaigner for lone parents, early years services and welfare rights, is hardly quaking in her boots. "We were a bit surprised by that reaction. We've always had this role of taking legal test cases," she says. "Mostly, the government accepts that part of our position is to challenge, and we enjoy a really good relationship with them."
She recently set up a lobby group to secure £500m from the government for childcare costs in the universal credit that will be introduced in 2013. CPAG has also been working closely with former Labour MP Alan Milburn on the social mobility and child poverty commission. Garnham comes from generations of miners in Durham and was the first woman in her family to go to university, so social mobility is a subject close to her heart.
Any attempts by this government to increase social mobility through early intervention for the children of low income families, such as expanding free childcare places to two-year-olds, are doomed to failure without increasing family income, she says. "No one is going to find me saying investing in early years is a bad idea, but it is well understood how income plays into early life chances. I don't think you can disentangle income from issues such as limited aspirations."
So can we expect CPAG – which also hosts End Child Poverty, a coalition of 150 organisations – to legally challenge a government that is missing its child poverty targets?
"If we were two or three years away and in the position we are in today, then clearly they would not be going to hit it," Garnham replies. "But we are nine budgets and two parliaments away from that. There is still a lot that can be done. So it is premature to start saying they are never going to hit it.
"I can see that it is a difficult time to press on about incomes, as there is no money, but what we've seen is the poorest families taking the biggest hit. The poorest 10% has been hit eight times harder than the richest. It is not defensible. There are broader shoulders that could be taking a fairer share of this and protecting these families. I'm very disappointed [at what] is happening."
Garnham believes that the situation for poor families today is worse even than it was for hard-up families in the 1980s. "At the same time as major reforms of benefits, there are drastic reductions in the support and advice available, and local public services are disappearing because of council cuts. It is a triple whammy," she says. "In contrast, the 1980s saw the birth of the welfare rights movement."
But Garnham is not shrinking from the challenges ahead. "My whole career has felt like a preparation for this job," she says.
Status Partner and seven-year-old son.
Lives North London.
Education Filton high school, Bristol; Leeds University, philosophy and psychology BA.
Career September 2010-present: chief executive, Child Poverty Action Group; 2006-10: chief executive, Daycare Trust; 1997-2006: director, policy, research and information, One Parent Families; 1995-97: senior lecturer, social policy, University of North London; 1989-95: welfare rights training officer, CPAG; 1984-89: welfare rights adviser, Peterborough Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB); 1983-84: welfare rights officer, Halifax CAB; 1980-81: self-help co-ordinator, Mind; 1977-81: volunteer, Leeds Rape Crisis.
Public life 2002-11: member, Social Security Advisory Committee.
Interests Cooking, film, gardening, flower arranging.
Wednesday, 21 December 2011
Poor families facing a 'triple whammy' of benefit, support and service cuts | Society | The Guardian