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TOMORROW’S Budget looks highly likely to confirm that the government has given up any remaining pretence of a plan to tackle child poverty.
Instead, we’ll see more Tory tax breaks for the rich — including cuts to inheritance tax and lifting the cap on bankers’ bonuses — while squeezing the benefits of those hardest hit by the soaring cost-of-living crisis.
Economic growth has reduced to a snail’s pace. The Tories have left us with record debt levels, taxes at a 70-year high, and decimated public services for the foreseeable future.
The devastating combination of 13 years of austerity, the pandemic and the cost-of-living crisis has created the perfect storm for the current explosion in poverty.
Real wages are lower now than they were in 2005, and inflation is still running rampant, with heating and eating unaffordable for millions of families. Over half of renters have been hit by rent hikes this year alone, with a third now struggling to pay or who have already fallen behind, no-fault evictions have led to increasing homelessness. Our hospitals and schools are literally crumbling and our welfare safety net is running threadbare, characterised by cruel and punitive sanctions.
Today in Britain, 4.2 million children are living in poverty, disproportionately affecting black communities, with nearly 50 per cent experiencing greater destitution.
In my own constituency in Liverpool, 11 children in a class of 30 are living in poverty. We are witnessing the disturbing resurgence of Victorian diseases such as rickets and scarlet fever, with a rising crisis in both malnutrition and obesity among school-aged children due to poor diets.
A million children are living in extreme poverty, with the latest research from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation showing that destitution levels are up nearly two-and-a-half times since 2017. One in 12 parents have a child who shares a bed with them or another sibling because they cannot afford another bed.
Earlier this month, the UN’s special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights declared that Britain is “in violation of international law” due to our poverty levels. A sad indictment of this country, the sixth-richest economy in the world, and the catastrophic legacy of this Tory government.
Child poverty costs Britain £39 billion a year due to increased pressures on public services, greater risk of unemployment and lower lifetime earnings. The moral and economic case for investing in our future could not be stronger or more urgent.
We know the policies that work. Universal free school meals would put money back into parents’ pockets and boost attendance and educational attainment for the poorest and most vulnerable pupils.
Abolishing the two-child cap on benefits would immediately lift 250,000 children out of extreme poverty at a cost of less than 1 per cent of the welfare bill.
These, alongside raising child benefits and local housing allowance in line with inflation and investing in Sure Start integrated care, are just some of the basic policies we need to consider ahead of a Labour government. However, campaigning on these issues hasn’t always been met with the enthusiasm we might expect from the Labour leadership.
Shadow DWP minister Liz Kendall came out earlier this week promising to introduce a bold national child poverty strategy, pledging to work across departments to lift a million children out of destitution. However, it’s currently unclear exactly what this strategy will encompass.
The leadership have adamantly refused to lift the two-child benefit cap, abolish the bedroom tax, or broaden eligibility for free school meals — so we know more about what Labour won’t be doing in government than what we will do for struggling families.
This frustration has been amplified further this week with indications that Labour is unlikely to oppose the Budget’s draconian benefits sanctions — validating the Tory “workers versus shirkers” narrative.
This has left many confused, asking what exactly Labour will do differently in government, especially given the shadow ministers’ history of supporting Tory austerity cuts to welfare.
Tomorrow is the final Budget before the expected general election next year. The last Labour leadership to stand on the brink of government in 1997 as we are now, pledged to end child poverty within a generation.
Today we need the same ambition. Labour must provide a bold and radical agenda and hope and opportunity for a generation that has known nothing but Tory misery and neglect.
Poverty is a political choice; we must make the right choice. With a Labour government in sight, we must demand nothing less.
Kim Johnson is Labour MP for Liverpool Riverside.
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