The government’s austerity drive is set to reverse the strides made in reducing child poverty in the UK, research published by Unicef on Tuesday suggests.

The study indicates that during the early years of the recession, the UK was more successful than other rich countries in reducing child poverty and protecting children from deprivation, but warns that spending cuts will swiftly undermine this progress.

“This report shows how committed government action can make a big difference for children. The UK should be proud that our commitment to end child poverty by 2020 in the past has seen a clear improvement in reducing child poverty and protecting vulnerable children from deprivation,” said David Bull, executive director of Unicef UK.

“However, we know that the number of children living in poverty in the UK is set to increase due to spending cuts. This will be a catastrophic blow to the futures of thousands of children, putting at risk their future health, education and chances of employment.”

Unicef’s Report Card 10, Measuring Child Poverty, argues that the UK’s success in reducing child poverty over the last decade was the result of the previous government’s drive to increase household incomes by introducing tax credits and improving public services for children.

Although the UK missed the target set by Tony Blair to cut the number of children in poverty to 1.7 million by 2010, the country still saw a large reduction in child poverty as a result of government intervention, Unicef said. (In 2009-10, the last year for which figures are available, 2.6 million children in the UK were below this poverty line, according to the definition in the target.)

The report notes that in a downturn children are first to drop off the policy agenda, and says it is evident that “frontline services for families are everywhere under strain as austerity measures increase the numbers in need while depleting the services available. It is also clear that the worst is yet to come.”

The report states: “Many families, even those on low incomes, have some form of ‘cushion’ – whether in the form of savings, assets or help from other family members – by which to maintain spending during difficult times. There is therefore almost always a time lag between the onset of an economic crisis and the full extent of its impact.

“Failure to protect children from poverty is one of the most costly mistakes a society can make. The heaviest cost of all is borne by the children themselves. But their nations must also pay a very significant price – in reduced skills and productivity, in lower levels of health and educational achievement, in increased likelihood of unemployment and welfare dependence, in the higher costs of judicial and social protection systems, and in the loss of social cohesion. The economic argument, in anything but the shortest term, is therefore heavily on the side of protecting children from poverty.”

Charities responded to the report’s publication by calling on the government to focus on the effects of austerity measures on children. The chief executive of Family Action, Helen Dent, said: “We’re deeply concerned that government measures to cut the deficit are blighting children’s futures.”

Matthew Reed, chief executive of the Children’s Society, said: “It would be a grave injustice if we allowed the burden of the current economic turmoil to fall on the shoulders of disadvantaged children.”

The shadow minister for children and families, Sharon Hodgson, said: “This independent report suggests that much of the good work that Labour did to address child poverty is being undermined by the Tory-led government … government cuts that go too far and too fast and the double-dip recession created in Downing Street will actually push more children and families below the breadline.”

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “We are pleased that Unicef’s conclusions affirm our initiative to improve education and early intervention as fundamental to tackle child poverty. We are committed to doing this by 2020. That’s why, despite a tough financial climate, we are putting more money into early years and nursery education than ever before.”

The report includes detailed discussion of the best way to measure child poverty and includes a new child deprivation index, which classifies children as deprived if they lack two or more items from a list of 14 basic requirements (which include three meals a day, fresh fruit and vegetables every day, outdoor leisure equipment such as a bicycle, two pairs of properly fitting shoes, an internet connection and money to participate in school trips and events). The UK fares better on this index (with 5.5% of children deemed to be deprived, and ranked ninth out of 29 economically advanced nations) than it does on the more conventional relative poverty rate, which Unicef defines as the percentage of children in households with income lower than 50% of the national median. On this measure the UK is ranked 22nd out of 35 nations, with 12.1% of children classified as living in poverty.

There is growing speculation over whether the government, which in 2010 signed up to legislation committing it to a 2020 target to end child poverty, will seek to abandon the relative poverty definition. The Centre for Social Justice – founded by Iain Duncan Smith, the secretary of state for work and pensions, when he was in opposition – has called on the government to scrap “crude and flawed yardsticks” for measuring child poverty.

Paul Champion

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