A conference at the TUC today will hear that there are 3.8 million children in Britain living in poverty, 100,000 more than last year. Ending child poverty in a generation was Gordon Brown’s own special pledge as Chancellor, but last week’s spending review put just an extra 50p in the pocket of the poorest parents. Kate Green, of Child Poverty Action Group, says that to reach Brown’s own target of halving child poverty by 2010, a further 900,000 children must be lifted above the poverty line. which would cost around £4 billion. “It is an affordable amount for a government that can make a priority of cutting inheritance tax,” she adds.
Being a child in Brown’s Britain is a miserable experience. Education is replaced by testing which has led to levels of stress among primary school pupils. There is less physical education, and the food sold by market-dominant supermarkets is leading to obesity and malnutrition. Children no longer play outside as cars dominate the streets, and the absence of social interaction means behavioural problems are commonplace. Asthma and allergies are epidemic.
Nursery classes start formal education at age 4 and 5 year olds are being tested, when in most other European countries they would be making plasticine pies and tumbling over climbing frames. For the children of the poorest families, the situation is even worse. The death rate for children of parents who have never worked or are long-term unemployed is 13 times that for the children of professionals. The number of children who die from accidents in the home is falling overall, but not for children in families where no adult is employed. Children who grow up in poor families are the most likely to leave school with no qualifications, and to end up in the lowest-paid jobs.
Peter Hain, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, will tell the conference that the answer is to get people off benefits and into work. Single mothers in particular are the focus for ferocious government coercion. But what Hain won’t report is that the number of people out of work and claiming benefits has risen to almost five million and the wages for the lowest-paid jobs have fallen to their lowest level relative to other work.
The system of tax credits, designed to get people to take the lowest paid jobs, was dubbed both “harsh” and “unfair” in a recent report from the Parliamentary Ombudsman. The tax authorities (HMRC) have pushed 363,000 families into debt when recovering overpayments made through mistakes in administration. The report singled out the “reasonable belief test”, whereby revenue staff decide if a person knew they had been overpaid, as creating a cruel Catch 22 situation.
Ann Abrahams, the Ombudsman, explained: "The claimant will receive an award, think that it looks a bit high, ring up, and be told it is fine; subsequently HMRC will say they have made a mistake and add "you rang up and said it was a bit odd, so you can't reasonably believe it was yours". Abraham's report coincided with a survey from Citizens Advice, which found problems with the tax credit system had put almost half of claimants off making claims in future.
In his speech to New Labour’s annual stage-managed, Union Jack-draped rally, Brown said that no child should end up on the scrap heap – but in poverty Britain, the size of the scrap heap is growing every day. A truly democratic government, representative of the people, would restructure work, education and communities to support a childhood that creates a society of well-rounded and happy adults – the kind of people that wouldn’t get into Brown’s cabinet!