We should enshrine in law a target for cutting child poverty

We are living through the biggest increase in relative child poverty in a generation.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies predict that without changing course we will see a 50 per cent rise by 2020.

That is why today I will lead a debate in parliament on child poverty to call for urgent action in order to meet the government’s commitments to those who are just about managing, and the many who are not managing.

This is about making sure that Britain is a country that gives every child the opportunity of the best start in life. That was clearly the intention expressed by the prime minister as she stood on the steps of Downing Street to signal a “fight against burning injustice.”

With the power to stop a rise in child poverty and support those who need it most, the government have a clear choice to make. Their decision will shape what kind of country we live in.

No child in Britain in 2016 should grow up in poverty. It means a child is more likely to fall behind in school, less likely to secure a stable job in the future, and more likely to suffer from ill health in later life.

Every family wants the best for their children, and often parents will go without to achieve that. Research from the Trussell Trust shows that one in five parents either skipped meals or relied on friends or family to feed their children last year.

Income is a central factor in meeting children’s needs. Tackling in-work poverty will be critical to the success of policies because two in every three children in poverty grow up in a household where a parent works.

Because work no longer provides a guaranteed route out of poverty, the government must take a wider approach. It must address insecurity at work and the rise of self-employment and zero-hour contracts. Delivering a real living wage for more workers will help, and we need to do much more to provide opportunities for progression for those on lower incomes.

Every family understands the costs of childcare. For low income families in particular, childcare provision must be flexible and available when and where parents need it. Getting that right would make a big difference, because when childcare costs are accounted for, an additional 130,000 children are pushed into poverty.

The government plans to publish a long-delayed social mobility green paper in the New Year. It will not be adequate without addressing child poverty. It must recognise that childhood is a key stage in anyone’s lifetime in itself, making up a fifth of the average lifespan. So the proposals must focus on achieving a good and nurturing childhood, as well as what happens next.

It should back a target to reduce the numbers of children living in poverty, as part of an ambition to ensure that no child grows up in poverty in Britain.

My forthcoming Private Member’s Bill seeks to set a child poverty target in law. It provides an opportunity for our parliament to continue a strong record of working on a cross-party basis on this issue. All parties supported the 2010 Child Poverty Act, which committed both current and future governments to take action to eliminate child poverty.

As in life, if you want to achieve something in government, it is useful to set a target. I do not seek to be prescriptive, but rather clear in establishing the principle that no child should grow up in poverty, and to measure our progress by a target.

I believe that setting a target can help realise a common purpose to tackle child poverty, which includes communities, employers and government at every level.

We should judge this government by its actions, not its rhetoric. If the Prime Minister’s words on the steps of Downing Street mean anything, then they have to support a target to lift children out of poverty.

Child poverty should scar our conscience as much as it does our children’s futures.

It would be an historic mistake to abandon that battle against child poverty. So let’s set a target and take action.

This article first appeared in The Times on 20 December 2016.

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