Anyone would think there’s a General election coming…. I say it’s too little too late
Radical plans to cut water, food and fuel bills for low-income families are being considered by the coalition as part of the government’s new childpoverty strategy.
The draft measures, seen by the Observer, indicate that the government is anxious to be seen to do more to improve the living standards of the worst off. They would also give the coalition ammunition to fight back against Labour, which has pledged to freeze energy prices, while helping it to deflect toxic claims made by Britain’s most senior Catholic, Cardinal Vincent Nichols, last week that the government has taken away the safety net for those who need it most.
Details of the draft strategy, which is expected to be unveiled within days by the work and pensions secretary, Iain Duncan Smith, and the Liberal Democrat education minister, David Laws, before being put out for consultation, include:
■ Reducing the typical energy bill by around £50 and extending the warm home discount – currently worth £135 a year and available only to older claimants.
■ Reducing water costs by capping bills for low-income families who are on a water meter and have three or more children.
■ Reducing food costs through healthy start vouchers for young children and an extension of free school meals.
Other measures include the expansion of free school transport, building more affordable houses, promoting credit unions and introducing a cap on payday lending.
Critics will claim that some of the initiatives are recycled. Others will seize on them as proof that the government accepts that the living standards of the poorest segments of society have been falling, despite Tory claims that the average family’s fortunes are improving.
If it adopts the strategy, the government is likely to use it as a counterblast to critics who believe coalition cuts to welfare spending and the introduction of the universal credit are widening the gap between rich and poor. Sources close to Duncan Smith say he has been pushing for more measures to help the poorest for some time.
The issue of how to tackle child poverty is politically divisive within the coalition. Duncan Smith and several other senior Tories favour new ways of measuring poverty that go beyond a focus on a family’s income; for example, taking into consideration whether a child’s parents are drug addicts or alcoholics and whether they are in work.
This approach has been controversial, with some critics claiming that it is an attempt to massage the numbers of children who are classed as living in poverty.
The Observer understands that a central focus of the draft strategy will be the need to tackle the “worklessness” of the poorest families, a familiar Duncan Smith theme but one criticised by some experts who point out that two-thirds of children in poverty live in working families. Imran Hussain, head of policy at the Child Poverty Action Group, said any new measures to help the poorest were welcome, but expressed fears that the strategy would fall short of what was needed – an increase in living standards to help close the gap between rich and poor – at a time of major upheaval in the welfare system.
“The poverty-fighting potential of the key policy here, universal credit, is being degraded by delays, complexities and by a series of Treasury-driven policy decisions to reduce support for the low-paid,” Hussain said.
Another key plank of the strategy will be a focus on improving the quality of pre-school education and “improving the quality of the [teaching] workforce”, something that could antagonise teaching unions. The strategy will unveil measures to hold schools to account for their pupils’ performance, ensure that they provide targeted support for any child who falls behind, and to increase support for poor young people to stay in education or training.
The strategy will cover the next three years. But experts fear that, unless more is done now, the government will not be able to make good on its target to end child poverty by 2020.
“Ending child poverty is one of the most important promises made by this government, but the biggest increase in child poverty in a generation threatens to be one its most damaging legacies,” Hussain said. “A credible national child poverty strategy must face facts and accept that, after years of child poverty falling, government policies are now creating, not reducing, child poverty.”