Alan Milburn’s dismissal as impossible of the goal of halving child poverty by 2020 is as risible as it is disturbing.
The goal, enshrined in the 2010 Child Poverty Act, embodies three things.
The first is a set of values, about the importance of children not being brought up in households that are perennially short of money. The second is an affirmation that this is a matter for which government takes responsibility. The third is a statement of hope.
There are usually two sorts of arguments to be had about the goal. One is about whether its precise form is the right one. Fretting about that is what academics are for. The other is about how it is to be achieved. That is the province of politicians.
Milburn’s intervention is different. By demanding that that officials should ‘come clean’ about the impossibility of meeting a goal with a supposedly £19bn price tag on it, Milburn – as the Coalition’s adviser on social mobility and a former Labour minister –is inviting the political class as a whole to give up on the goal. This is why his intervention is so disturbing.
The reason why it is also risible is that £19bn a year by 2020 is not a large enough sum of money to abandon one’s principles. Say the economy finally starts growing again in 2015, at a steady 2% a year. By 2020 it will be 12½ per cent larger. £19bn represents just one tenth of all the extra growth.
Devoting this much money to such a goal is indeed a big political challenge. But it is not big enough to conclude that the goal is so unrealistic, even reckless, that it must be abandoned altogether. That’s a political choice.
The proper conclusion to draw from concern at the £19bn figure is not that the goal is wrong but that the means of achieving it are inadequate. That is the debate that Milburn needs to launch: if we cannot reach the goal this way, how else could we?
Our years of crunching poverty statistics tell us that the numbers themselves are not to be taken too literally. What matters is what they represent. What the goal in the Child Poverty Act represents is an aspiration for this country to have a child poverty rate in 10 years time that is amongst the best in Europe. One specific way of putting that is to say that we must look like Sweden or Denmark.
Do we want that? That is a very fair question, to which it is far from clear that England and Scotland would give the same answer. If we do, or even if we think we might, the debate needs to turn to the institutions, policies and cultural norms that could bring this about. Instead of using a forecast as a fig-leaf for junking principles, this is what Milburn should be talking about.