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Government must commit to new cross-departmental strategy to tackle child poverty, MPs say

22 September 2021

A lack of clear leadership and focus has hindered efforts to reduce the number of children growing up in poverty in the UK and the Government must now commit to a cross-departmental strategy given the scale of the challenge, MPs say today.

The Work and Pensions Committee’s first report as part of its wide-ranging inquiry into children in poverty underscores the impact of poverty in childhood for children’s lived experiences now and for outcomes later in life, including in health and education.

Government should end focus on absolute poverty and look at broader measures

In addition to adopting a strategy with clear and measurable objectives, the report calls for the Government to end its focus on absolute poverty, and instead reaffirm its commitment to tracking four income-based indicators, which also include relative poverty and broader material deprivation measures.

Quality, timeliness and completeness of child poverty data can be improved

The quality, timeliness and completeness of data relating to child poverty must also be improved if it is to be measured properly, the report adds. It also calls for a single measurement framework bringing together all statistics relating to child poverty and deprivation.

Chair's comment

Rt Hon Stephen Timms MP, Chair of the Work and Pensions Committee, said:

“Children growing up in the UK are far more likely to be living in poverty than adults.  The coronavirus pandemic has only made matters worse for families who were already struggling to get by. If a generation of young people facing poorer educational outcomes and chronic health problems are to be lifted out of poverty, there needs to be clear leadership and a strategy driven from the top to ensure that every part of Government is focused on tackling the problems that they face.

Ministers told us that they are focused on the absolute measure of poverty. But anyone who uses only one measure of poverty is missing out on the important information provided by the whole range of measures that DWP itself produces. We were concerned by the narrowness of their focus.

The Government’s published statistics on families in low income are so slow to produce that they still don’t cover the pandemic—even though HMRC and DWP hold a vast trove of real time information about people’s incomes. The Government needs to make much greater use of the information it already has to publish a dashboard of child income-related poverty indicators that’s closer to real time.

At the moment, the Government has no strategy and no measurable objectives against which it can be held to account. How can it hope to reduce child poverty when it doesn’t have a plan?”

Main findings and recommendations

Defining child poverty, identifying its causes and consequences (Chapter 1)

  • Evidence received by the Committee agreed that poverty was at least partly about having insufficient material resources to meet minimum needs, once the cost of living is taken into account.
  • Defining poverty in income terms does not mean that the Government’s response should neglect the underlying causes. A holistic approach to child poverty should target the income poverty itself and the factors that lead to it or are made worse by it. The DWP should commission a systematic review of the latest evidence on child income poverty, its definitions, its causes and its consequences.

Measuring child poverty (Chapter 2)

  • While the UK Government is legally obliged to measure and report child poverty through a range of income-based indicators, Ministers made it clear to the Committee that they consider absolute income poverty to be the most useful measure.
  • The Committee is concerned that the Government is focusing solely on a single measure of poverty, rather than drawing on the rich information offered by the DWP’s own set of income-based measures, which combines relative, ‘absolute’ and broader material deprivation statistics. Ministers should reaffirm their commitment to all four income-based measures of poverty.
  • The Government monitors worklessness and educational attainment indictors. The Committee concluded however that, with most children in income poverty in working households, these indicators are not a substitute for measuring poverty. The DWP should broaden its indicators to measure the quantity and quality of work in families and communities and the quality of family support.
  • DWP should consolidate its statistical publications on income-related poverty and wider social deprivations to create a single dashboard of indicators of child poverty which logically describe the evidence-based causes and consequences of child poverty.

A strategy for child poverty (Chapter 3)

  • The Committee welcomes the creation of a new Inter-Ministerial Group to identify measures to address the cost of living. This however ignores aspects relating to income and earnings and the wider social deprivations linked to poverty. The Government should now commit to a comprehensive cross-departmental UK strategy for child poverty.
  • The strategy should set clear, ambitious and measurable objectives and plans for reducing child poverty and the Government should report to Parliament annually on progress.

Quality, timeliness and completeness of child poverty data (Chapter 4)

  • Good quality data is essential if the Government is to measure child poverty properly. The Committee heard evidence that the quality, timeliness and completeness of data could be improved.
  • The pandemic has brought into sharp relief the delay in publishing poverty data through DWP’s ‘Households Below Average Income’ statistics. DWP should work with HMRC and others to develop a dashboard of child income-related poverty indicators which are closer to real time.
  • DWP should commission research examining the impacts of the pandemic on children living in families on low income. The Department should also work with the ONS to produce more data on children and their families with no recourse to public funds.

Further information

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