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Hard times do not mean we cannot afford to tackle child poverty. Outgoing Barnardo’s chief executive Martin Narey argues that we cannot afford not to.

When I joined Barnardo’s some people were puzzled by my switch from director general of the prison service. But the logic was clear to me: the main link between my old world and Barnardo’s is disadvantage and poverty and child poverty in particular.

I believe the UK is a fine place for most of our children, but for a large and troubling minority that affluence is something they only see on TV. We have a battle on our hands with child poverty and I worry that its importance has tumbled down the political priority list for both the coalition and the opposition.

One reason, I believe, is due to a sudden and inexplicable emergence of a consensus that income poverty doesn’t really matter. It is certainly the case that poverty is about more than just income and it is right to be looking at early intervention and to refocus Sure Start on the neediest families.

And the coalition is entirely right to tackle worklessness. Of course we must adequately provide for those who cannot work. But to work with offenders for as long as I have, or to meet some of Barnardo’s children and families and to deny that we have a minority determined never to work is to be blind to an uncomfortable reality. Worklessness is a cancer that eats away at children’s future prospects as they grow up believing that the world of work is nothing to do with them.

Not having enough money to bring up children grinds away at very fabric of the family. But this is particularly so when a parent, or parents, are in work. When parents are living entirely on benefits life in poverty is tough. When mum or dad is in full time work, but still the family is in poverty, it’s a tragedy. Two thirds of children living in poverty in the UK right now have one or both parents working.

For a family of four to live on £308 a week is tough:  where mum or dad is working full time, doing their best but having to raise a family where money is short, where there are never any savings to cope with an emergency and where they have to cope with the level of debt from the sort of banks that few readers will experience. Many of the families that Barnardo’s works with have long since been abandoned by high street banks. When they need to replace the washing machine they turn to the likes of the Provident with interest rates of 365 per cent and above. Or the working poor can get Provident’s version of a credit card to see them through, with a typical APR of 272 per cent.

I defy anyone to be certain that they could be a good parent, involve themselves in their children’s schooling, help them develop hobbies, encourage them to read, give them a decent diet and guide them away from trouble with the police when week after week they are worn down by debt which they know, they might never repay.

We have to attack worklessness, but we can only succeed if we make sure that work pays. The coalition and Labour  share the goal of eradicating child poverty by 2020. If the coalition government is serious about this we need to see some progress very soon. If David Freud is right and the universal credit might rescue 300,000 children from poverty by beginning to make work pay that will be a commendable start. But it will only be a start.

We need to do more. And we can afford it. There may be no new money but, even after the spending cuts which have been announced, there is plenty more which might be redistributed with very little pain. For example, the Chancellor could look again at benefits for older people. If the coalition found the bravery to restrict just the winter fuel allowance and free TV licenses to those who most need them, they’d find £1.4 billion which they could spend on the working poor. And by taking all family income into account and paying child benefit only to families where total income is below £37,000 he could save another £2.5billion.

These two savings alone, ploughed into the tax credit system for families where someone is working, would do a great deal to make a reality of the proposition that work pays and we could see hundreds of thousands more children exiting poverty.

I’m not striving for a perfect society and I’m not naïve about inequality. But we have to decide how much we can tolerate, economically and morally. We need to put income inequality back at the forefront of political debate. That is the foundation for better educational achievement, greater ambition in terms of employment and less crime.

This is the foundation for a better United Kingdom.

Martin Narey has previously worked as Director General of the Prison Service, Chief Executive of the National Offender Management Service and a Permanent Secretary at the Home Office. You can view his full speech at the RSA.


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