The government’s Children’s Plan focuses on child poverty and nursery provision, as well as education. The government aims to halve child poverty by 2010 and eliminate it altogether by 2020.
Currently one in three children in the UK – 3.8 million – live in poverty. Ed Balls, the minister responsible for the plan, has admitted that child poverty increased this year for the first time since 1999.
The plan aims to tackle child poverty by getting parents off benefits and into work, as “parental employment provides the best sustainable route out of poverty”.
But more than half of all children living in poverty already have a parent who works. Pushing people from poverty benefits into poverty wages does not solve the problem. Gordon Brown’s attempts to hold public sector pay rises below inflation will worsen the situation.
Other proposals in the plan include reforming the child maintenance system, a “key part” of which is providing a “new information and support service”, providing all children with a “world class education” and “investment in tackling health inequalities”.
But the cuts and privatisation being driven through the public sector undermine these goals.
There is vague talk about “improving the conditions of family life”. But again government policy seems to be doing the opposite – making parents work longer hours, and refusing to make the necessary investments in housing and healthcare.
The Joseph Rowntree Foundation has estimated that Britain needs to invest £4.3 billion annually to halve child poverty by 2010 – something that goes far beyond anything included in Labour’s proposals.
The plans for nursery provision caught the headlines, in particular the pledge to provide 20,000 of the poorest two year olds with 15 hours of free nursery care every week.
But these proposals leave 630,000 two year olds without a free nursery place. By contrast, Denmark and Sweden provide nursery care for all children between six months and six years.
The Daycare Trust, the national childcare charity, warned that even the limited proposal “will only be really effective if matched with funding needed to ensure that nurseries are sustainable”.
The government has not made it clear where the funding will come from.
The trend in recent years has been for government nurseries to close and private ones to take their place – 80 percent of provision in the early years sector comes from private, voluntary and independent providers.
The typical cost of a full time nursery place for a child under two in England is £152 a week. Costs can rise to £205 a week in inner London.
There is only one registered childcare place for every three children under the age of eight in Britain. The proposals in the plan do nothing to substantially change this.
The Children’s Plan helped Labour grab some positive sounding headlines. It contains many statements that no one could disagree with – that child poverty should be eliminated, that children’s lives should be improved and so on.
But Labour’s real record points in the opposite direction. Just last week, research funded by the Sutton Trust found that social mobility in Britain had fallen, and that educational achievement was strongly linked to parents’ income.
When Tony Blair first announced New Labour’s pledge to end child poverty, back in 1999, he said, “The child born in the run-down estate should have the same chance to be healthy and well educated as the child born in the leafy suburbs”.
But the poverty gap remains and, without a massive increase in investment, it will continue to grow.