Thursday, June 28, 2007


I think that people who write speculation about Gordon Brown's intentions should go back to the old system of making sacrifices and reading the entrails. Any purely random system of predictions would have had a higher success rate than predictions about how the handover process would go, who would be deputy leader, who would be in the Cabinet and so on.

So having sacrificed a goat, here's my speculation about what the reshuffle means for child poverty. This is one of the tough challenges facing Gordon Brown. By 2010, the target is for the number of children living in poverty to be less than half the number that were in poverty in 1998. At the moment, the number of children living in poverty is rising, and the target will be missed. So Something Needs To Be Done.

Brown's strategy for reducing child poverty since 2000 has been to increase the number of parents in work, and boost the income of families through direct cash payments. This has helped 600,000 children and their families out of poverty. But it relies on constantly rising levels of employment amongst parents, and benefits for families rising faster than average earnings. Last year, for the first time since Labour came to power, this didn't happen and so levels of poverty rose. It is also easier to help people who are just below the poverty line to escape poverty than the very poorest people who face the most disadvantages.

The appointment of Peter Hain as Secretary of State for Work and Pensions is good news. He is likely to be less keen on trying to cut benefit levels or look at ideas like time-limiting benefits than John Hutton was, and his ideas about reducing poverty and inequality which he set out in his deputy leadership campaign are thoughtful and would make a real difference if he can get them enacted. The only cloud on the horizon would be if he has got a taste for regressive measures from introducing water charges in Northern Ireland.

Ed Miliband has taken over from Hilary Armstrong as responsible for Social Exclusion. Again, this is positive - Hilary Armstrong's approach was very much focused on the idea that poverty was caused by people's behaviour, and modest schemes to improve public services were often presented as crackdowns on the undeserving poor. Ed Miliband is clearly a rising star, and it will be interesting to see his ideas about new ways of helping the people who face multiple disadvantages. He will presumably take forward from his previous job some thoughts about how the voluntary sector will be more involved in this.

But the most significant appointment is that of Ed Balls, whose new department will have a much greater role in tackling child poverty, along with the Department of Work and Pensions and the Treasury. (This was confirmed in the morning's press briefing).

Brown has already said that education will be a top priority for the spending review later this year. It looks like any extra resources to reduce child poverty are likely to be part of this focus on education, which is a different approach from the idea of work being the only route out of poverty.

The links between poverty and educational disadvantage are many and deep. Just to take one example, many children go to school hungry because their parents cannot afford to give them any breakfast. They then find it difficult to concentrate in lessons, and therefore don't achieve academically. Providing free breakfasts at school for all children who need it would help boost educational attainment and help every child fulfil their potential, and would particularly help the poorest families.

Ed Balls will know better than any other minister how much money is available, and which arguments are going to persuade the new Prime Minister to spend on his priorities. If Gordon Brown had wanted to abandon the target to cut child poverty, he wouldn't have given his key lieutenant responsibility for it.

But here's the really difficult bit. Education does help people get out of poverty, but it can take many years for this to happen. Investing in education can help make sure that a five year child won't be in poverty when she leaves school in 2020. But it won't help her family escape poverty now or in three years' time. So Gordon, Ed, Peter, Ed and the rest of the team will need to work on making sure that the new money for education helps the poorest children most. But they also need to remember the basic lesson which anyone living in poverty could tell them - the best and quickest way to help reduce child poverty is to make sure that poor families get more money.


At 11:42 pm , Anonymous Rob said...


Very much agree with you as ever regarding the cabinet, just a small query regarding Tangoman and water charges in Northern Ireland. I've a feeling the entire policy was part of a clever ploy to convince the politicians and people of Ulster that it was in their interest to form a government, rather than rely on "barbaric and unrepresentative" rule from Westminster. It was therefore strategic genius (possibly not solely of his own invention) rather than ideological deviation, folly and betrayal.

At 9:24 am , Anonymous tim f said...

I'm slightly more cynical about Hain's appointment in DWP. Rather than assume it meant Brown was less keen than Blair to rush through welfare reform, I think he's deliberately put Hain in a position where he's going to be responsible for driving through regressive/modernising (delete as appropriate according to ideological preference) measures knowing Hain is far too ambitious & self-important to turn down a cabinet position but lacks the party base (given his result in the DL elections) to demand something else instead. So Brown makes sure Hain is pissing out not in, and gets someone widely perceived as being on the left to take on the role of justifying welfare reform to the party.

Perhaps I'm too cynical for my own good, but it would be the smart thing to do in Brown's position.

At 9:53 am , Anonymous Pickles said...

The Hain strategy in Northern Ireland appears to be the Blair strategy in the Middle East - send somebody who irritates the participants so very much that generations and bitterness and hatred and grievance are forgotten in a bid to persuade the (government/quartet) that "everything is fine here, no more trouble honest, you can let your representative leave now".

At 9:58 pm , Blogger chris said...


Just wanted to point out what I thought was a flaw in your reasoning. You write:

"So you'd expect to find support for redistribution of wealth, right?

Not really. The percentage of people who agreed that 'the government should do more to redistribute wealth from the better-off to those who are less well-off' fell by 12%, from 44% to 32%, between 1996 and 2004".

Believing that the government should do *more* to redistribute is stronger than supporting redistribution. It is of course possible that, over the period in question, government started doing more to redistribute wealth, and more people thought it had reached the appropriate level.


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