Monday, 6 July 2015

Moving the goalposts won't eradicate child poverty, PM - My Catholic Universe column

I remember very well my first day at Catholic primary school. I had moved there at the start of what is now Year 5 from the nearby local maintained school as a result of my lapsed father returning to the faith.
I quickly got used to the routine which started both morning and afternoon with class prayers. In turn students would get to choose what the prayer would be, I quickly learned that when it came to your turn the only correct choice as far as the class was concerned was a swift ‘Glory be’. Heaven forbid, as some overly keen altar server would always do, if the student of the day decided on ‘Hail Holy Queen’ – along with the audible sigh you could literally see the shoulders of every other class member drop by an inch or two.
I got used to school mass on a Wednesday morning and very quickly learned that if you popped into the next door parish church after school it was very likely that our wonderful, and ever so slightly scary, teacher would be there and she would give you 10 merits for your piety.
It was a lovely school with great teachers and a very special atmosphere.
My most vivid memories however, even now, are about football. In the days of separate boys and girls playgrounds we would play in no way what could be called the beautiful game every break and lunchtime.
With an astonishing lack of foresight someone in authority had decided to paint a goal on the school wall at one end of the playground but not to provide a similar one at the other end.
We Year 5 boys quickly realised that two concrete uprights in a rough alignment with the goal at the far end could represent posts, but that was where the problem started. The concrete posts were not the same width as those on the painted goal and so in our minds we would seek to compensate by adjusting the height of the crossbar to makes the area of each goal equal. Obviously because there was no real crossbar all of this height adjustment was a matter of visualisation.
The outcome was, as you might expect, some real humdinger arguments with the goalposts (or at least the crossbar) literally being moved to determine the final score.
When you are nearly 10 moving the goalposts is indeed an actual thing and when it happens you know you have been egregiously wronged, so much so that if the ball is yours you absolutely will pick it up and blooming well take it home with you.
As you get older there is a tendency for us to be more complacent about goalpost shifting. We expect politicians to do it and so we just accept it. As a 10 year old it was easy to understand what was right and what was wrong, maybe sometimes we need to rediscover that sense of righteous indignation?
In the dog days of the last Labour government a piece of legislation entitled the Child Poverty Act was passed. The law stipulated that by the year 2020 the government would endeavour to ensure less than 1 in 10 children will be living in relative poverty.
Relative poverty can be measured quite effectively as any household living on less than 60% of the average income.
We are not talking about families earning big money here, but those living on less than £272 per week before housing costs are even taken into consideration.
Statistics released by government this week, far from working towards what is a largely unambitious target, show that the numbers are relatively static with 2.3 million children right now living in relative poverty. It’s a picture that gets far worse once housing costs have been taken in to account when nearly one third of all children are living in a family unit classed as suffering.
This week reports emanated from government that the Prime Minister intends to repeal the Child Poverty Act as it is, in his own words, ‘absurd’. The Prime Minister cites that a small rise in state pension can affect the median average income.
Whilst Mr Cameron’s position may be factually correct it certainly isn’t something to be proud about. A small increase in income for pensioners still means millions of families, two thirds of whom have at least one parent in work, are really having to make a choice of eating or heating, or figuring out how they can afford to send their child to school (a fact not lost on many Catholic families facing exorbitant costs to allow their children access to faith based education).
This government now free of the reigns of a coalition partner are taking measures, not least of which is the anticipated reform of working families tax credits, which see projections for child poverty rocketing to 4.5 million in less than five years time. Rather than effectively tackling the root cause of the problem however the Conservative government are increasingly insistent on getting rid of the way it is measured.
This week Alison Garnham, Chief Executive of the Child Poverty Action Group, said "These figures make grim reading for anyone looking for progress on child poverty.  Because, make no mistake, we are facing a child poverty crisis in the years ahead and the Government is not going to meet the child poverty targets it signed up to. Rather than opening up opportunity, the UK is now going down the road of closing down life chances for hundreds of thousands of children in low income families.
“This child poverty crisis will undoubtedly deepen if the Government goes ahead with plans to cut help for children in low income families and for the low paid.  You don't tackle low pay by making the low paid poorer. You don't tackle child poverty by slashing targeted help for children in low income families and then claiming money doesn't matter.”
There are those that will argue that the last Labour government could have done more to tackle child poverty and they are right. There are those who may well argue that Child Poverty Act was at least in part political shenanigans to make an incoming government look bad and I will not vehemently argue that assertion. But whatever the reasoning the outlook for those at the bottom of our societal pile is getting worse.
It is said that in the days Margaret Thatcher spent in Downing Street the methodology for calculating unemployment statistics changed almost as often as unemployment statistics were reported upon. As the situation worsened quietly statistics were massaged to not look quite so bad.
I believe that at heart Mr Cameron is a man of integrity however as he starts to think about the legacy he will leave Britain with as he stands down at some point in this parliamentary term surely he doesn’t want to be seen as someone who manipulated figures but rather someone who tackled problems?
As I think back to those childhood goalposts I ponder on what we did to stop arguments about whether a shot was in or whether the ball went over and I realise we had a straightforward way of dealing with it. We made sure there was no doubt by aiming directly for the centre of our target.
Perhaps that is what Mr Cameron needs to do? Set about dealing with the problem of child poverty rather than the minutiae of statistical methodologies.
Perhaps there is much we can learn from the simple views of schoolboys?

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