How Child Poverty Action Group came into being

Issue 113 (autumn 2002)

In the decade preceding the birth of CPAG a number of studies appeared in the fields of sociology and socio-medical research which contained information about poverty among old people, widows and lone mothers, and about malnutrition. Analysis of national assistance benefit levels showed that they were not matching increases in general affluence.

My own first book, Delinquency and Child Neglect (1962), had followed several papers that I had written on the adverse economic conditions among families on inadequate incomes. The annual conference of the British Sociological Association in 1962 drew together diverse workers in the field of poverty to hear Peter Townsend read his paper on ‘The Meaning of Poverty’, and we were given some of the first findings of his study, The Poor and the Poorest, which was to be published in 1965. There was a mood of conspiratorial excitement, since we were producing empirical evidence of poverty, definitions of poverty, and the links of poverty with health, with performance, and with social behaviour, which contradicted the prevailing view that poor people were biologically determined ‘poor stock’, or that their problems could be explained in psychiatric terms.

The Quakers’ Social and Economic Affairs Committee (SEAC), of whom I was one, had been studying the problems of poverty for some time, and in 1964 published my pamphlet Poverty in Britain Today which reported on national assistance benefit levels and what families in Cardiff had told me about the difficulties of living in poverty. We had hoped the newly-elected Labour Government would act against family poverty, but the Queen’s Speech did not refer to it. We therefore decided to hold a meeting at Toynbee Hall (whose warden, Walter Birmingham, was a Quaker), and sent out invitations to a number of persons who were working in various occupations (in voluntary organisations, local authorities and universities) that brought them into contact with poverty. Most of them were not Quakers. In my letter of invitation I said:

‘We are especially concerned about the neglect of family allowances in the new Government’s proposals for increases of benefits and allowances. We felt that it may even at this late stage be possible to register our alarm…and to discuss this matter with others interested in this subject’.

Brian Abel-Smith was invited to address the meeting on ‘The Question of Poverty’. Peter Townsend and Tony Lynes, who had also been invited, were unable to attend, but both joined us later.

A month earlier I had written to Walter Birmingham (14 February 1965):

‘I have been thinking if this is going to grow into an interest group which one might give a little more permanence. I don’t think there is any type of organisation that would do as an umbrella for those of us who are specifically interested and concerned about poverty. This does need thinking about, and I see this in two ways, as an organisation that might co-ordinate and encourage research, and that might act as a lobby…it is a thing that could grow naturally out of the 5th of March…One might think in terms of occasional meetings in the first place at which a paper could be discussed but possibly some secretarial organisation pretty soon for co-ordination and action. To have a place to come together and talk seems to me essential. One might look around for one of those innumerable charities for the handicapped that find no outlet, for initial support.’

In the event, all these thoughts came to fruition. I had asked Walter Birmingham if Toynbee Hall could be the location, but, while he offered it as a meeting place, he could not offer secretarial support. Nor could the Quakers as a small religious body undertake the political operations that would obviously be needed to achieve the group’s objectives. The General Secretary of the Family Service Units, Fred Philp, then offered their facilities for the time being.

The birth of CPAG has been described in many publications, but not reliably in at least three – two of Frank Field’s books [1971, 1982], and Asa Briggs’ and Anne Macartney’s history of Toynbee Hall [1984]. Field, who joined CPAG only in 1969, wrote (1971 p144) that SEAC ‘arranged a series of meetings on that recurrent topic, “current social problems’’, and that the meeting took place on 13 March. His more extended version of these events (1982 p23) recounts that ‘Harriett Wilson…suggested a discussion on vagrancy’. In fact, the meeting on 5 March was the only one arranged by SEAC and vagrancy was never mentioned. Both Field’s and Briggs/Macartney’s accounts conflated Toynbee Hall’s regular Friday meetings with one made available to SEAC for its poverty meeting and its own guests. Later writers who have depended on these authors, such as Banting (1979 p72), may also need correction.

Harriett C Wilson