Jim Murphy – 2006 Speech on Child Poverty


Below is the text of the speech made by Jim Murphy, the then Minister of State for Employment and Welfare Reform, to the Capita Child Conference on 11th July 2006.


Last week’s End Child Poverty Report: Unequal Choices drew together some of the feedback from recent stakeholder events organised with the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

One of the participants said:

“Childhood cannot be re-lived. Isolation, desperation and hurt are not just words for young people – they have a scarring impact. It is unforgivable that these years can be allowed to be stolen from young people through poverty.”

No speech from a Minister can sum up the impact of poverty better than that.

There is a chain of disadvantage that runs through generations of the same families. Each successive generation is a link in that chain. We have to go further to break these generational links.

This cycle of deprivation has been building momentum: poor girls become mothers younger and Joseph Rowntree Foundation research last week suggested that one million children growing up poor could produce, on average, an additional 120,000 poor children in the next generation.

We have made striking progress in tackling child poverty since 1997. In the mid to late 1980s, the UK suffered higher child poverty than nearly all other industrialised nations. Over a period of 20 years, the proportion of children living in relative poverty had more than doubled and one in three babies born in Britain was poor.

Since 1997, we have tackled worklessness by investing in Jobcentre Plus and the New Deal; we’ve introduced the National Minimum Wage to make work pay and established Tax Credits to target financial support at families with children.

The child poverty rate is now at a 15 year low and we are close to the European average for child poverty – instead of bottom as we were in 1997. We’ve made the biggest improvement of any EU nation and the number of children in relative low-income households has fallen by 800,000 since 1997.

In politics, it’s very easy to talk a lot about statistics. But that’s 800,000 more children more likely to thrive in childhood and better able to fulfil their potential as adults. 800,000 individual lives transformed – given the kind of beginnings we want for all children, and which they should have by right.

So, much progress has been made. But it has not extended far enough. Too many remain trapped in a chain of disadvantage, and those that do remain are often the poorest and most socially excluded in our society.

Working together, we must do more to break this chain. We simply cannot accept poverty as an intrinsic feature of the social landscape of the UK, where – for the most excluded – there is little more that can be done to lift them out of poverty.

We know that this problem of poverty is of human making – for too long politicians tacitly, and sometimes explicitly, accepted that a lifetime on benefit was the solution for some of our fellow citizens. That’s just the way life was. People left to struggle in poverty without any suggestion that there might be a different way of doing things. A more just way, that acknowledges human potential and the dignity families feel when they are able to provide for themselves rather than rely solely on the state.

But just as the problem of poverty is of human making, the answer to breaking the chain of generational disadvantage lies in our hands. Which is why we set ourselves the target of eradicating child poverty by 2020.

Why child poverty and why now?

The moral case is evident: children in the UK are not even born equal. The child of a poor household is more likely to be premature and the infant mortality rate is twice as high for the poorest.

By the age of 15, the 5% most disadvantaged are 100 times more likely to experience multiple social problems.

And an ever-growing body of research attests to the particular importance of a child’s early years in forming their life chances as a whole. Which is why our focus on child poverty is so essential. Through improving children’s life chances, we’re also working to prevent adult disadvantage – that life of obstacle rather than opportunity that is still the reality for too many families and communities in Britain today.

But there is also an economic case for breaking the chain of disadvantage. Child poverty is a significant factor contributing to social costs of:

£500 million a year spent on homeless families with children;

£300 million a year on free school dinners;

Up to £500 million a year on primary health care for deprived children; and

£1billion on children’s residential provision.

And where individual lives go into a downward spiral – perhaps culminating in crime or drug dependency – the cost of interventions can lead to tens of thousands of pounds of expenditure. Prevention is better than cure for the individual and for society. Eradicating child poverty is the ultimate prevention.

Evidence suggests that education, as well as parental income, is key in providing poor children with the foundation for a route out of poverty. It is through education that we can first sense and ultimately fulfil our potential.

Looking forward to 2020 – I see not the world of today, but one of unimaginable change. Today our economy has 9 million highly skilled jobs – but by 2020 will need 14 million highly skilled workers. And whereas we now have 3.4 million unskilled jobs, it is estimated that by 2020 we will only need 600,000 unskilled workers.

So, weak educational outcomes for poor children represent not just the squandering of untapped promise, but a lost opportunity for them to contribute to the economy as adults.

Today’s teenagers will be the parents of 2020 – and today’s young people are the first generation who can truly be said to be competing in a single global economy. Their competitors in the job market are the citizens of China and India, not just their peers from their community, country or continent.

Emerging and developing economies have increased their share of world trade by around a third since 1990;

China is now the sixth largest economy in the world, and is projected to be the third largest within a decade; and

China and India are producing 4 million graduates a year.

These are challenges not just for our economy but also for individuals – for the children who are at school today. Government must face up to these challenges and equip individuals to compete. I see globalisation as an opportunity. But it is an opportunity from which all must benefit.

Vision – what government is doing

Tackling poverty and breaking the cycle of disadvantage isn’t just about improving educational opportunities for poor children or putting more money into parents’ pockets. It is a multi-dimensional challenge – so we must use all the tools at our disposal in a concerted effort to end child poverty:

Improving the targeting and tailoring of our employment support – to help all those who can work do so. Achieving an enduring reduction in child poverty means that, whereever possible, people must have the opportunity and support to work and provide for themselves. Since 1997, the number of children living in workless households has fallen by over 370,000 – but the UK still has the highest proportion of all children living in workless families anywhere in Europe.

Our Welfare Reform Bill, introduced to Parliament last week, will provide the legislative framework for a new and innovative, personalised approach to supporting Incapacity Benefit claimants back to work. And because children of lone parents not in work are over five times more likely to be in poverty than children of lone parents in full-time employment, we must continue to consider how we can best target support to this group.

I also want to see the tools of the Welfare State better targeted at helping families with children in the years ahead, including considering whether and how we can refocus our employment programmes and the delivery of our future reforms, so that helping parents back into work is fully integrated into their objectives and ways of working.

Providing the right financial support – creating the right incentives to work, balanced with support for those who can’t. This is particularly important in supporting the transition into work. Good quality childcare is an essential part of this picture – building further on our investment in Sure Start and early years education, to deliver our commitment to universal, affordable childcare for 3 to 14 year olds by 2010.

Tackling in-work poverty – enhancing skills to lay the foundation for progression in the workplace and supporting the partners of those in work. Around half of the children living in poverty in Britain today live in a household where an adult is already in work – largely couple families who do not work enough hours or earn enough to escape poverty. To help the in-work poor we must look at new ways of encouraging second earners into work; continue to make sure that work pays, and do more to improve progression in the labour market by supporting and extending investment in skills.

And we must also improve awareness and understanding of the benefits system, so that, for example, more people realise that Housing Benefit and Council Tax Benefit can be claimed in work. Recent evidence has shown that this would increase work incentives.

Reforming the Child Support system – so that it is fully aligned with our target to halve and then eradicate child poverty. Research from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation showed that, in 2000, child support made only a 3% contribution to tackling child poverty in the UK – compared to as much as 25% in Switzerland and Austria.

Child Trust Funds – ensuring that all children are brought up with a chance to save, with poor children benefiting from a boosted Government contribution. So that all young people can embark on their adult life with a financial nest-egg to help them get their foot on the opportunity ladder and build the habit of saving. For Labour, the politics of aspiration and the politics of poverty are not in conflict, in fact they go hand in hand.

Redistribution of power in public services – we must see a real improvement in public services, but we haven’t yet gone as far as we need to. Inequality still remains in some aspects of our public services, and in some of our poorest communities they have not improved quickly enough. So what is the solution? Wait for a gradually improving uniformity to reach the poorest performers? I, for one, am not willing to wait.

I want to enable further choice in public services – meaningful choice of high quality services. I want to ensure that those without:

The sharpest elbows;

Family networks or social capital; and

Those whose voices have not yet been heard in this debate

… have greater power placed in their hands.

Political progressives have long discussed the redistribution of wealth. We have been inexplicably muted on the redistribution of power.

So we must be confident that we are using all our tools to combat child poverty to maximum effect. Tackling child poverty is DWP’s number one priority; we are reviewing the work of the entire Department to assess what more we can do – and have appointed Lisa Harker to advise us as we develop our renewed strategy.

Engaging Young People

Our efforts must address the key areas of disadvantage that research shows limit young people’s life chances. By renewing our strategy in these areas we can make real and sustained progress towards our ambition of ending child poverty in a generation – breaking the chain of disadvantage for good.

The disability rights movement has a saying – ‘nothing about us, without us.’ I believe that to bring about lasting change – and to truly break the chain of disadvantage which links the generations – the same must be true for the children of poverty. Not least because the parents of the children of 2020 are themselves at school today.

Many of us have our own experiences of child poverty. I want to hear from young people about the impact poverty has on them and what they think Government and others could do to make their lives better. Later this Summer we will be bringing together a number of children from deprived areas of the country for a Summer Seminars here in London – where we will be exploring their perspectives on what poverty means and what can be done to tackle it.

The results will be included in DWP’s renewed strategy – to be published this Autumn – and we will be seeking nominations for participants from, for example, charities, schools and families of children who are living in poverty today.


Government is well placed to make the economic case for ending child poverty. But young people’s voices are essential to making the social justice case.

The chain of generational disadvantage – reinforced in the 1980s – has been weakened in recent years. But it has not yet been broken. I believe that to break this chain, two generations will have to be freed from it.

Achieving our target of eradicating child poverty by 2020 is the challenge and responsibility of Government. But our approach must be strengthened, not just by popular engagement but by popular refusal to tolerate child poverty in today’s Britain. For this to happen, I believe we must extend awareness of what poverty means to children in Britain today. By helping young people’s voices to be heard – we truly can “make poverty history at home”.