David Cameron’s final words at PMQs today – “Nothing is really impossible if you put your mind to it” – bring to my mind one of his early speeches on poverty.
In 2007, at a speech at the charity Chance UK, David Cameron declared:
“So when I say that we can make British poverty history please do not tell me that it cannot be done. Do not tell me that a society which can decode the human genome…
…build the world's greatest financial centre…
…and provide the young men and women that form the finest armed forces on earth…
…cannot fight and win the battle against poverty.”
I should say, before I go on, that there’s a slew of really rather excellent David Cameron speeches and statement on poverty which he made in his first two or three years as party leader.
For example, during his first visit as opposition leader, he said that in the end the test of his policies would be of how they affect the worst-off in the country.
In his 2006 Scarman Lecture he argued that the 1980s government were wrong to ignore relative poverty: “Even if we are not destitute, we still experience poverty if we cannot afford things that society regards as essential.”
The Chance UK speech, like those other early speeches, was clear and ambitious on poverty. But that ambition had dimmed by the time David Cameron entered office as Prime Minister in 2010 and as his government prioritised large and repeated cuts to working age benefits as a key tool to reduce public spending.
There were a couple of areas of genuine progress. First, the extension of free school meals to all infants in English schools is a policy that will boost attainment, encourage healthier eating and help family budgets. Second, the Coalition extended childcare help through free entitlement and with improved help with childcare costs for low income working parents.
But, overall, the picture was grim: successive cuts to social security hit families with children, and the worst off, hardest. It became grimmer still, when the 2015 Summer Budget unsuccessfully tried to slash tax credits but successfully eviscerated Universal Credit. The latter had been the DWP’s main poverty-fighting tool. In 2010, ministers said it would lift 350,000 children out of poverty. As Universal Credit was cut by the Treasury this figure was downgraded to 150,000 by 2013. Following the 2015 Summer Budget, the Government now refuses to say whether, overall, Universal Credit will lift any children at all out of poverty.
The IFS projects that child poverty will rise by more than 50% by 2020-21.
The Welfare Reform and Work Act passed earlier this year demonstrated how far David Cameron had rowed back from the optimism of his early days. The Act, in effect, repeals the Child Poverty Act which he had so noisily supported in 2010 and scraps the statutory measures and targets on child poverty.
A Prime Minister who came in promising to protect child benefit looks like he’ll be responsible for it being cut by a quarter.
A Prime Minister who promised he would measure and act on poverty has ended up increasing it and playing down its central importance to life chances.
It’s encouraging that the new Prime Minister, Theresa May, wants to take on the life chances agenda from the outgoing Prime Minister. If she wants to find out more about the importance of poverty to childhoods and life chances then reading those early Cameron speeches won’t be a bad start.
But they would only be a start. The new Prime Minister has inherited a child poverty crisis that needs actions, not more words.