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“Child Poverty has disappeared from the Government’s agenda”

An Interview with Sir Stephen Timms MP, Chair Work and Pensions Select Committee

Child poverty remains a significant barrier to equality of opportunity, however the Levelling Up White Paper and the Levelling Up Bill surprisingly make no mention of it. In fact, the issue has been largely absent from the policy agenda for the past 12 years of Conservative government. However, the issue has several vocal champions in Westminster, one of whom is Sir Stephen Timms MP, the highly respected chair of the Work and Pensions Select Committee. Chamber recently met with him, to discuss the place of child poverty in the levelling up agenda and cross-governmental policy more widely.

Tackling child poverty

Sir Stephen has long been one of the most prominent voices in parliament on the issue of child poverty.

Sir Stephen introduced the Child Poverty Act of 2010, which brought a series of new legal duties for the then Labour Government. It set out what he himself describes as “a demanding set of criteria”, requiring the Government to take action to meet four income targets for ending child poverty by 2020.

This requirement survived the early years of the Coalition Government. Their 2014-17 child poverty strategy said that it was “firmly committed to the goal of ending child poverty in the UK by 2020.” This target, however, was officially dropped with little fanfare or public attention, when the Child Poverty Act of 2010 (which required the publication of a national tri-yearly child poverty strategy) was repealed by the Welfare Reform and Work Act 2016.

child poverty action group event
Sir Stephen Timms, speaking at a Child Poverty Action Group event

Levelling up and child poverty

Child poverty remains by far the strongest predictor of a child’s future life chances. Early achievers from poorer backgrounds are overtaken by lower achieving children from advantaged backgrounds. Simply put, children growing up in poverty (however defined), do not have the opportunities that other children have.

If levelling up (as the White Paper claims) “means giving everyone the opportunity to flourish”, then, as Timms notes, “what is happening to children has to be a big part of evaluating how the country and government is doing.”

If the Government is interested in equalising opportunity, child poverty remains the biggest barrier to doing so.

Child poverty is also a policy area with a clear opportunity for devolution. As Timms notes, one of the key components of the Child Poverty Act was that “it required local authorities to develop their own strategies for reducing child poverty.”

Such a provision seems an obvious mechanism for child poverty to be incorporated into the levelling up agenda, as the devolutionary component of the agenda is based on this same belief that localities are better situated to know the needs of local communities.

What is the Government doing on child poverty?

Assessing the work that is underway on the issue, Timms commented that: “to the best of my knowledge, child poverty has disappeared from the Government’s agenda. I think they would prefer not to talk about it if they didn’t have to.”

He would certainly know. In his capacity as Chair of the Work and Pensions Select Committee, Sir Stephen has launched a wide-ranging inquiry examining the steps that the Government could take to reduce the numbers of children who grow up in poverty in the UK.

However, without binding commitments, Timms insisted that “there isn’t a focus on child poverty anywhere in government”.

The Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) continues to publish statistics on child poverty; however, the figures are reflective of this lack of focus, with increasing rates of children living in poverty by all measures. According to DWP figures, the number of children in relative low-income families has risen from 1,880,828 in the fiscal year ending 2015 to 2,379,590 in 2021, a shocking rise of 27%.

Measuring Child Poverty

With little in the way of policy work going on in government, Timms draws some optimism from the work of the Social Metrics Commission.

For a long time, efforts to tackle child poverty and other issues related to poverty more widely have been bogged down by the dividing line of absolute and relative approaches to measuring poverty. For some time, this divide has been bridged by the DWP reporting on both measures of poverty and each side referring to the side they see as more important.

However, Timms remained optimistic that there is another way, citing the work of the Social Metrics Commission in developing a new approach:

“The work that the Social Metrics Commission has done on measuring poverty is very interesting… particularly important because I think what they’ve done does hold out the promise of moving beyond the rather partisan debates we used to have about how to measure poverty.”

The Commission views poverty as “the experience of having insufficient resources to meet needs.” However, it acknowledges that there are several ways in which needs, resources and sufficiency can be characterised. As such, it has taken four steps to develop a measure of poverty:

  1. How do people share resources as well as combine needs?
  2. What material resources are available to people?
  3. What are the needs which these available resources should meet?
  4. How can we compare these resources and needs and update this comparison over time?  

Certainly, it is hoped that an alternative measure of poverty could bridge the divide between absolutists and relativists. The extent to which this partisan gap has stalled progress on tackling poverty is up for debate, however it is certainly the case that it hasn’t helped in addressing the issue with concrete measures.

Final Thought

Until this metric gains more traction at the governmental level, we remain with the absolute/relative divide.

The Conservative rejection of relative measures of poverty reveals a fundamental contradiction that lies at the heart of levelling up. The Government wishes to bring other areas up to the level of large economic hubs like London and Manchester, an aim which implicitly takes living standards in relative terms (i.e., the idea that some areas are doing poorly relative to London). Yet when it comes to tackling (child) poverty, relative measures are held to be inappropriate.    

Commenting on the rising rates of children living in both relative and absolute poverty, Timms urged the Government to reprioritise the issue:

“We need to set out targets for child poverty, as well as the strategy for delivering them.”

Levelling up seems like an obvious, pre-existing policy programme for it to be embedded within, as it is fundamentally about equality of opportunity. More so than any other factor, growing up in poverty is the strongest determinant of living in poverty later in life. It is this fact that makes it essential to the levelling up agenda, missing from the 305 pages of the Levelling Up White Paper.

Cynically speaking, embedding a new focus on child poverty in the Department of Levelling Up, Housing and Communities may also ensure that some resource is allocated to the policy area. That, that this government has all but abandoned any focus on child poverty is a great shame. However, it is not too late for this to be changed. Levelling up remains in its infancy and if it is to achieve all that it could, it cannot start from this impoverished state.


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