Warning from MP over disbanding of child poverty unit

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A flagship unit aimed at tackling child poverty has been disbanded by the Government, prompting warnings from a Labour MP and campaign groups.

Parliamentary questions from Dan Jarvis reveal the work of the cross-department child poverty unit has now been transferred to the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), having seen its staffing numbers halved in three years.

A DWP spokeswoman said it was "nonsense" to suggest the Government was not continuing to tackle the problem, with a new social justice paper due to be published in the new year.

But the Child Poverty Action Group joined Mr Jarvis in criticising the move.

The MP for Barnsley Central said Theresa May's actions have failed to live up to her rhetoric on tackling poverty.

Mr Jarvis added: "The Government's closure of the child poverty unit is a clear example of Theresa May's misplaced priorities and how her government is leaving many of our children behind.

"All the evidence shows that children living in poverty face too many obstacles to reaching their potential.

"They are more likely to fall behind in school, less likely to secure a stable job, and more likely to suffer from ill health.

"Child poverty should scar our conscious as much as it does our children's futures. The Government should work to ensure that no child in Britain grows up in poverty."

A Parliamentary written question from Mr Jarvis shows the child poverty unit had been cut from 23 full-time staff in 2012 to just 11 at the start of the 2015/16 financial year.

The unit had been jointly sponsored by DWP, the Department for Education and the Treasury.

Alison Garnham, chief executive of Child Poverty Action Group, said: "Tackling child poverty has been a cross-departmental and particularly a Treasury priority, so there has been real value in having the child poverty unit working across the Treasury, Department for Education and Department for Work and Pensions from day one.

"Collapsing the unit into just one department downgrades the unit's status and weakens its reach, influence and effectiveness right across Government.

"We have an oncoming child poverty crisis; the Institute for Fiscal Studies estimates we'll see a 50% increase in child poverty by 2020. We need more, not less, resources for tackling the problem."

The charity cites DWP figures which show there were 3.9 million children living in poverty in the UK in 2014-15 - 28% of all children.

DWP minister Damian Hinds, responding to Mr Jarvis's question, said: "The child poverty unit's main function was to support ministers in exercising their duties in relation to the income-related targets set out in the Child Poverty Act 2010 and the associated child poverty strategy.

"Following the repeal of those targets, responsibility for child poverty policy and analysis transferred to the Department for Work and Pensions.

"The Social Mobility Commission Secretariat continues to be based in the Department for Education and the Secretary of State for Education is the lead minister for the commission."

But Mr Jarvis says the social mobility commission is understaffed, with a further parliamentary question showing it is limited to seven full-time civil servants.

Other answers from ministers to questions from Mr Jarvis confirm the life chances strategy pledged by Davis Cameron will no longer be published, with a wider paper around social justice due to be published in the new year.

A DWP spokeswoman said: "It's nonsense to suggest we don't still carry out this important work.

"We are absolutely committed to tackling poverty and in the new year we will publish a social justice paper outlining our plans for the years ahead.

"Work is the best way out of poverty and there are records levels of low unemployment.

"By increasing the national living wage and taking millions of people out of paying any income tax, we are ensuring it always pays to be in work."

The Child Poverty Transitions Report released last summer found that 74% of poor children in workless families that moved into full employment exited poverty.

Mr Jarvis will lead a debate in Westminster Hall on Tuesday on addressing child poverty.

He also plans on bringing forward a private members bill in February that will establish a target for the Government to cut poverty among children.

The previous Child Poverty Act had set a target for ending child poverty in 2020.

A Downing Street spokesman said: "Just because the child poverty unit in its previous guise doesn't exist, that doesn't mean it is an end to Government commitment to the work that that unit was doing.

"Clearly, we are still committed to tackling poverty ... The work it was doing goes on across Government."