Maggie Jones on our plans to fix the damage done by the Coalition's approach to tackling child poverty
What kind of future awaits a child being born into poverty in Britain today? The omens are not looking good. The latest Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission Report highlights a continuing link between childhood deprivation and poor life chances. The education of these children will suffer compared to their peers. They will end up in less well paid jobs, living in more overcrowded housing and with poor health. Their own children will be born into poverty and the cycle will begin again.
It doesn’t have to be this way. The last Labour government set an ambitious but achievable target of eliminating child poverty by 2020. But the Coalition's deliberate fiscal policies have, if anything, made the matter worse. A recent investigation by the Children’s Commissioner into government tax and social security measures since 2010 shows that the biggest losers were the poorest 10% of families. The most vulnerable children, such as those with a disability or being raised in a single parent family, lost out the most.
Labour has long considered early years’ intervention as key to breaking the cycle of deprivation. The Sure Start programme of Children’s Centres was one of our flagship policies. These were based on the premise of being open to all and providing a wide range of help and advice to families. It was recognised that young parents, who may not have strong role models of their own, need education and support to understand the social, emotional and practical challenges of bringing up a child.
At the last election David Cameron pledged to continue supporting Sure Start. Sadly, this has turned out to be a hollow promise. At the first opportunity, the ring fence on the programme's funding was removed with the result that the Centres were left to fight their corner for squeezed local authority funding alongside other competing services. As things stand, over 600 centres have since closed or merged.
Some progressive Councils, such as Manchester and Leeds, are determined to protect the vision of Sure Start whilst reforming provision to allow local areas to tackle the root causes of problems in their communities. Others however, like Conservative-run Swindon have a rather different approach. The Council has significantly reduced the budget by £770,000 this year, leading to the closure of seven of the town's twelve Centres. And this despite a promise to parents that the service would be protected from further cutbacks. Plus it also flies in the face of evidence that effective early intervention and outreach can help save funding on youth and adult services once the damaging effects of deprivation become embedded.
As I and others will make clear in an Opposition-led debate in the Lords on Thursday, a future Labour government is determined to reform public services, building on the early intervention model to reduce inequality, boost social mobility and narrow the gap between the most vulnerable in our society and the rest. In contrast to the Tories’ failed legacy, our aims could not be clearer.
Baroness Maggie Jones of Whitchurch is Shadow Education Minister in the House of Lords. She tweets @WhitchurchGirl
Published 7th January 2015