The Conservatives’ welfare cuts will come under attack on a new front this week when the House of Lords considers plans to change the way child poverty is measured, just as benefits cuts hit low-income households.
Labour and Liberal Democrat peers, emboldened by their success in forcing the chancellor, George Osborne, to rethink his tax credit changes, will use the debate on the welfare reform and work bill on Tuesday to warn that child poverty is set to surge.
The End Child Poverty campaign, a coalition of more than 100 charities and NGOs, is urging the government to drop plans – already passed by the House of Commons – to replace the well-established measures of child poverty, based on household income, with a disparate series of indicators including educational outcomes and unemployment.
Analysis of official figures carried out by the campaign shows that the number of children in working families living in poverty – defined as being below 60% of UK median income – has surged by 300,000 since 2010, to 2.4 million, once housing costs are taken into account. More than half of the children in poverty on this measure now live in working households.
The work and pensions secretary, Iain Duncan Smith, is a long-standing sceptic of income-based measures of poverty, believing that they skew policy towards achieving “poverty plus £1”. He prefers instead to focus on boosting social mobility.
However Ruth Lister, the Labour peer and professor of social policy at Loughborough University who plans to speak in Tuesday’s debate, called this approach bizarre. “There is systematic academic evidence showing a very clear, causal link between income poverty and children’s life chances,” Lady Lister said.
She criticised the fact that the government would no longer be forced to report regularly to parliament on child poverty levels, just as the next round of spending cuts bites. “Children and families have lost out the most so far and they’re going to lose out again, and we’re not going to have a statutory way of showing that.”
Sam Royston, chairman of End Child Poverty, said: “We know money matters and we need to keep measuring whether families have enough. Scrapping the poverty measures set out in law will leave ministers blind to the numbers of children living in families struggling to get by because they lack the money they need to stay warm and fed.”
A spokesman for the Department for Work and Pensions said: “Eradicating child poverty is an absolute priority for this government, but it is not enough to tackle the symptoms without also tackling the underlying causes.”
The Conservatives are heavily outnumbered in the Lords and peers infuriated Osborne by rejecting his cuts to tax credits last month. He will announce revised plans to save £12bn from the welfare budget at the spending review on 25 November.
As well as redefining child poverty, the bill includes other changes to welfare policy announced in the summer budget, including the reduction in the benefit cap and limits on tax credits for families with more than two children.
Labour’s spokeswoman in the Lords on work and pensions, Baroness Sherlock, said the legislation could face a rough ride in the upper house over the coming weeks, with amendments likely to be tabled in early December.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010