The UK needs clear targets to reduce and eventually put an end to child poverty. This is the purpose of a Private Members' Bill sponsored by Dan Jarvis MP. The Bill places the duty on the government to set targets to limit both absolute and relative child poverty, to lay out a clear strategy, and to report to Parliament on progress made to meet the targets. The Bill intends to restore the benchmarks of the Child Poverty Act 2010, which were removed by the Welfare Reform and Work Act 2016.
According to the Department of Work and Pensions, the proportion of children in absolute low income (before housing costs) was 17% in 2014/15, substantially more than the 5% target of the Bill being discussed in Parliament. Furthermore, the Institute for Fiscal Studies has predicted a 3-point rise in absolute child poverty between 2016 and 2020 as a result of planned tax and benefit reforms.
The government must "develop a comprehensive child poverty strategy and reinstate the targets and reporting duties on child poverty". These are not my words. The government read them last year in the report of the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. This was one of its 60 recommendations, made after two years of careful analysis of the evidence provided by government officials and by civil society groups, including more than 70 organisations gathered in the Just Fair Consortium.
Also last year, the Committee overseeing compliance with the most widely ratified human rights treaty, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, recommended the UK to "set up clear accountability mechanisms for the eradication of child poverty, including by re-establishing concrete targets with a set time frame and measurable indicators, and continue regular monitoring and reporting on child poverty reduction".
In a joint letter sent to the UK government less than one year ago, the UN Special Rapporteurs on Housing, on Rights of Persons with Disabilities, on Extreme Poverty, and on the Right to Food, highlighted the abolition of child poverty targets as one of the most concerning issues of the Welfare Reform and Work Act 2016.
The government must abide by the Sustainable Development Goals, which the UK contributed to bring to life in 2015. The first one of these Global Goals requires all countries, regardless of their level of development, to adopt targeted measures to eradicate poverty according to standards to be specified nationally.
Economic and social rights are proclaimed in international treaties ratified by the United Kingdom. All countries must ensure the satisfaction at the very least of a minimum social protection floor, taking measures to the maximum of available resources to improve the level of enjoyment of all human rights.
Virginia Bras-Gomes, a senior member of the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, visited London last week and met with political parties, civil servants, journalists and civil society groups. Ms Bras-Gomes reminded them of the UK's international obligations in relation to economic and social rights.
In an unparalleled fashion, while Ms Bras-Gomes was in London, the Ministry of Justice disclosed publicly that the government does not intend to report on implementation of the 60 recommendations made by the UN Committee last year.
This announcement is deeply regrettable and sends a harmful message to the world regarding the UK's commitment to the idea of international human rights.
Thankfully, in spite of the government's reluctance, Parliament has the chance to make amends. We need a well-defined path to abolish child poverty in the UK. This requires precise targets to ensure that policies are based on evidence available to Parliament and to the public.
Poverty constrains people's ability to make critical choices in their lives. Poverty is about actual freedom. It is therefore a human rights issue, and a rich country like the UK cannot afford child poverty.