When the Welfare Reform and Work Bill was published back at the end of last summer, it drew a cacophony of groans from people working with children and families. They knew that when, in 2013, the coalition government first consulted on scrapping income-based measures of child poverty and moving towards a life chances approach, 98% of the consultation responses disagreed vehemently with the idea.
And yet here it was again: a proposal to tear up the targets to end child poverty enshrined in the Child Poverty Act, and along with them the measures of poverty based on family income. The government would, it said, only commit itself to reporting to Parliament on the numbers of children growing up in workless households and on educational attainment at GCSE.
A depressing prospect, that extinguished hopes that had been lit just a few years before. In 2010, when the Child Poverty Act was passed with cross-party approval, many campaigners felt that we had reached a historic moment in the battle to end child poverty. The Act committed future governments to publishing national strategies to end child poverty, and, most importantly, to a collective acknowledgement that growing up without enough money damaged children’s chances. The 2015 Government’s proposal to effectively repeal the Child Poverty Act – including renaming it the ‘Life Chances Act’ - destroyed this consensus.
And so the campaigning began. Along with many others, CPAG published detailed briefings suggesting amendments to the Bill for MPs, and our Chief Executive Alison Garnham was called as an expert witness to the Commons Bill committee. But, as with the tax credits debate, we knew that the House of Lords would provide the best chance of any meaningful change to the Bill, as the Government’s majority meant it would be very difficult to block or amend the Bill in the Commons.
The End Child Poverty coalition, of which CPAG is part, swiftly agreed to target the House of Lords with individual emails from members of the public.
Meanwhile, CPAG worked with a member of the public as outraged as we were to start a petition on Change.org, also targeting the House of Lords. Rebecca has two kids and she and her husband work fulltime, but they still struggle (overall, over two thirds of poor children have at least one parent in work). 50,000 people signed the petition – many more than we expected as a small charity and a sign that to most people measuring poverty by income is common sense – and matters.
The Lords debated the Bill through December, then in January voted on several amendments, including to reinsert income measures of poverty (the four different measures currently included in the Child Poverty Act, which are intended to capture different aspects of living in poverty). CPAG and the End Child Poverty coalition had been lobbying individual Lords, including cross-benchers and Labour and Lib Dem peers, who between them had the majority necessary to defeat the Government and pass the amendment.
As the Bishop of Durham, who proposed the amendment, said:
"This is simply about a reporting mechanism which we believe is important as part of the monitoring. I say “we” because I have consulted with bodies such as the Child Poverty Action Group, the Children’s Society and many others which work with children and families in poverty day in and day out and are still convinced that this is important information to have alongside tackling the other drivers. Therefore, although I know that the Minister will not be pleased with me, I wish to test the opinion of the House."
We always knew that even if the House of Lords did the right thing and voted for an amendment to keep child poverty measures and reporting, the Government would likely overturn the amendment when the Bill returned to the House of Commons. So we turned our attention to MPs, with End Child Poverty asking supporters to lobby their MPs to support the amendment, to make sure they knew how the public felt on the matter.
Public action, meeting individual Lords and MPs to provide evidence and make the case for a sensible set of child poverty measures, generating discussion in the media… Finally this work bore fruit, when last week the Government agreed to add an amendment committing them and future governments to publishing child poverty statistics based on income every year.
It’s still a bad Bill. We don’t like the loss of the child poverty targets, the cuts to ESA rates, the two child limit on tax credits, the lowering of the Benefit Cap… To be frank, we don’t like most of it. But a win is a win – and we’re delighted the Government has made this commitment.