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Child Poverty Act - an analysis

The Child Poverty Act 2010

Les Allamby, Law Centre (NI), May 2010

Background

In 1999 the Labour government announced a commitment to eradicate child poverty by 2020.  It was a pledge agreed in a speech endorsed by both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.  The initiative also set out interim targets including a reduction in child poverty by one quarter by 2004 and one half by 2010.  In Northern Ireland there is also an additional target to eliminate severe child poverty by 2012.  It took four years after the initial announcement to agree a measurement to form the basis for measuring child poverty.  In Northern Ireland Save the Children in Measuring Severe Child Poverty in the UK revealed that 43,000 children continue to live in severe poverty (ie 10 per cent of all children while Kenway et al suggested that around 100,000 children live in poverty)

It is clear that the 2010 target is likely to be missed by some distance.  In September 2008 the (then) Prime Minister Gordon Brown announced the intention to introduce Child Poverty legislation.  The Child Poverty Act 2010 was passed on 26 March 2010.

The Child Poverty Act 2010

The Child Poverty Act is a United Kingdom piece of legislation which requires England, Scotland and Northern Ireland to put in place strategies that describe the activities to be undertaken to tackle child poverty.  The Welsh Assembly has already introduced similar requirements which is why it is exempt from parts of the Act.  There are three key components in the Act for Northern Ireland namely targets, strategies and a Child Poverty Commission.

(i) child poverty target

The Act starts by setting a date by which a report on whether the 2010 target has been met must be made.  The timetable is as soon as practicable but, no later than 30 June 2012.  Next, the Act provides a duty on the Secretary of State to meet four child poverty targets by 2020.  The targets are technical definitions and cover relative low income, combined low incomes and material deprivation; absolute low income and persistent poverty.  The relative low income has an end-point definition in 2020 of less than 10 per cent of children living in such households.  The low income and material deprivation target is that less than 5 per cent of children will be covered by this definition.  The absolute poverty target is to reduce the proportion of children in this state to less than 5 per cent.  The persistent poverty target has not been defined as it is a new measure and it has no specific 2020 target.

(ii) child poverty strategies

In order to meet these targets, the Secretary of State responsible for tackling child poverty must within twelve months of the legislation being passed publish a strategy ensuring as far as possible that children in the United Kingdom do not experience socio-economic disadvantage.  The strategy may refer to proposals from Northern Ireland.  In particular, the strategy has to address what measures need to be taken in the following areas:

  • the promotion and facilitation of employment of parents or the development of the skills of parents;
  • the provision of financial support for children and parents;
  • the provision of information, advice and assistance to parents and the promotion of parenting skills;
  • physical and mental health, education, childcare and social services;
  • housing, the built or natural environment and promotion of social inclusion;

In Northern Ireland OFMDFM must publish its own strategy within twelve months of the Act being passed.  The strategy must set out the measures that Northern Ireland government departments propose to take to meet the child poverty targets and to ensure as far as possible that children in Northern Ireland do not experience socio-economic disadvantage.  The strategy must be periodically reviewed and revised before the Northern Ireland Assembly.  The strategy may not refer to matters which are reserved to Westminster (for example, taxation and immigration).

(iii) Child Poverty Commission

A United Kingdom wide Child Poverty Commission is to be created to provide advice to the UK government and to the Scottish and Northern Ireland authorities on their child poverty strategies.  At least one member of the Child Poverty Commission will be appointed by OFMDFM and the Commission will be set up in 2010.  The devolved administrations are required to have regard to the Commission’s advice but, is not compelled to follow the advice.  The advice from the Child Poverty Commission will (we understand) be published to allow people to see to what extent the advice has been followed.

In addition, OFMDFM also required to consult with children and parents and organisations working with or representing children and/or parents and others as it thinks fit.

ANALYSIS

The Child Poverty Act is a significant step forward yet, it offers no guarantees to eradicating child poverty.  What it does is guarantee that the issue will continue to occupy the spotlight.  The Act was passed with the support of both the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives while in opposition albeit with some reservations about the details.

There is a sting in the tale within the Act in that the UK child poverty strategy and the advice given by the Child Poverty Commission to OFMDFM must take into account:

  • economic circumstances and, in particular, the likely impact of any measure on the economy; and
  • the fiscal circumstances particularly the likely impact of any measure on taxation, public spending and borrowing.

In addition, the Northern Ireland strategy must have regard to the resources available to Northern Ireland departments and the effect of the implementation of the strategy on those resources.

In effect, it will be difficult to enforce the duty in courts.  The Warm Home and Energy Conservation Act 2000 in Britain imposed a duty on the relevant Secretary of State to publish a strategy to ensure that as far as reasonably practicable people do not live in fuel poverty.  Friends of the Earth and Help the Aged took a case against the Secretary of State for failing to implement and effective strategy.   This challenge was unsuccessful at both the High Court and the Court of Appeal.

A key question will be how the public expenditure cutbacks and policy initiatives  impact on the risk factors affecting child poverty.

The risk factors associated with severe child poverty include children who:-

  • live in workless households;
  • have parents with low educational attainment;
  • live in socially rented accommodation;
  • live in single parent households;
  • are from ethnic minority backgrounds;
  • are in large families;
  • have young parents;
  • have parents with no savings/assets;
  • have one or more parent who is disabled.

Moreover, in Northern Ireland the provision of affordable, accessible, good quality childcare remains far behind the rest of the United Kingdom.  Unlike elsewhere, in Northern Ireland there is no lead Department responsible for childcare, no statutory duty on public authorities to ensure adequate childcare provision and no strategy for childcare agreed by the Northern Ireland Executive.

This impact this factor has in placing barriers towards finding work for lone parents or working two parent households should not be underestimated.  Any child poverty strategy needs to make progress in this area if the route to work is to be a meaningful route out of poverty.

In summary, the Child Poverty Act is an important part of the campaign to tackle inequality and child poverty as it will hold the Westminster government and Northern Ireland Executive to account for what it is doing to tackle child poverty effectively.  Nonetheless, it is only one part of any campaign as ending child poverty needs both action and legislation.

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