In the dying days of the last government, Labour laid a series of policy landmines, primed to explode under its successor in Downing Street. All were designed to portray potential Conservative opposition to these policies as heartless and/or out of touch with modern life. Prime examples were the introduction of the 50p tax rate, the Child Poverty Act (making the “abolition” of child poverty by 2020 a legally binding target) and the Equality Bill.
On 50p tax, unable to make a consistent or coherent case against increasing levels of taxation, the Chancellor has ended up with a 45p compromise that seems to please no-one. On the Equality Bill, the coalition ducked the opportunity to restrict its scope or limit its cost (to businesses and taxpayers), instead passing it into law within six months of taking office. And Labour's child poverty target, which stipulated that by 2020 no child would be living in a household with less than 60% of median income, met with no resistance from the Conservatives in opposition; it now provides a stick with which critics can beat the government at regular intervals. Those critics include not just the Institute for Fiscal Studies, which frequently provides calculations showing how far short of the target the government is falling, but also the coalition's own poverty adviser (and former Labour minister) Alan Milburn.
So it will be interesting to see how the Government reacts to yesterday's recommendation from the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ), calling for the abolition of the target and its replacement with broader measures. Many of the CSJ's criticisms of the 2020 target have already been aired by Neil O'Brien and others over at Policy Exchange, who advised the Conservatives back in 2009 to oppose Labour's bill and who have consistently argued for a more intelligent anti-poverty strategy. Given the CSJ's reputation for researching and analysing the causes of poverty and deprivation, its intervention in the debate should provide the coalition with a welcome opportunity to replace Labour's narrow and self-defeating policy with a more authentic and constructive approach. It could also present the Prime Minister with a chance to reaffirm his commitment to tackling social problems by supporting and strengthening families.
As both Policy Exchange and the CSJ have shown, the legislative goal of bringing families with children above 60% of median household income can be achieved by statistical changes which do nothing to improve the lives of the children involved. In a recession, the fact that incomes are falling across the board makes the target easier to reach, so fewer children fall below the 60% line. On the other hand, increasing the state pension results in an increase in median income, which pushes more children below the line. Yet the income of these children's families remains unchanged.
More importantly, measurements of household income tell us very little about the quality of children's lives. Poverty is often associated with family breakdown, addiction, chaotic parenting, worklessness or a combination of all these things. Yet there will be huge variations in child welfare across households with similar incomes but very different attitudes to work, family stability and child rearing.
The coalition is making valiant attempts on one of these fronts, as its welfare reforms attempt to incentivise work. But it has sorely neglected other causes of child poverty. As the drugs policy expert Kathy Gyngell points out, the coalition's approach to addiction is almost indistinguishable from Labour's failed “harm-reduction” strategy, disappointing those who hoped for a rehabilitation-based approach. Some of the biggest losers from this strategy are the children whose parents have susbstituted methadone for heroin addiction, rather than being expected to change their lifestyle.
On the issue of chaotic parenting, offering baby care classes for all, rather than focusing on problem families, reflects the government's inability to learn the lessons of Sure Start; it will have no impact on the lives of the children whose parents most need instruction.
Most conspicuous of all is the government's lack of an agenda to strengthen families by incentivising marriage and family stability. Given the Prime Minister's repeated pre-election assurances on this subject, and in the light of the special opt-out afforded to the Liberal Democrats in the coalition agreement, it is baffling that so little progress has been made.
As the Conservatives struggle to establish a defining purpose for this administration beyond deficit reduction, a clear break with Labour's failed social policies would surely help them to demonstrate a reason for governing. As a new survey earlier this week showed, a long-lasting marriage is ranked as life's most important achievement not only amongst the elderly but also among 18-24 year olds; it is a popular aspiration the government would do well to endorse. A child poverty strategy which encouraged parents to commit to each other and to stay together would be a good place to start.