After the death of Khyra, poverty must be put at the top of the agenda

By Kate Smith

TEN SHORT WEEKS AGO THE BUDGET THAT WAS meant to help halve child poverty by 2010 was announced and, in the same space of time, a child was taken out of school and starved.

It is not clear at this stage whether Khyra Ishaq died as a result of neglect, abuse or a problem with her parents’ ability to care for her, but the death of the seven-year-old highlights the plight of children caught in poverty in the UK at the beginning of the 21st century.

More than 250,000 children in Scotland, or one in four, live in poverty. Of those, 90,000 live in severe poverty. In the UK those figures rise to 2.8 million and 1.5 million respectively.

It all started so well with New Labour. In 1997 then prime minister Tony Blair and his then chancellor, Gordon Brown, pledged to end child poverty by 2020, halving it by 2010. In the 1980s and 90s the number of children living in poverty doubled. While it has been reduced, that last Budget needed a commitment of £4 billion to meet that target in two years – money that was not forthcoming. There was, however a commitment of £1bn.

For a lone parent with two children, severe poverty means surviving on less than £8000 a year. We might not see shoeless children in winter any more, but families in severe poverty are living without electricity some days. Parents simply cannot afford to feed their children properly.

One of the major problems with government policy is that it focuses on getting people back to work as a means of alleviating poverty. But, in the current employment milieu, this is not always the snap-on solution it seems.

There is a new and growing class of working poor. Many children living in poverty are in families where a parent works but where salaries are not enough to pay the bills, resulting in fuel and food poverty, or where work is so casualised as to interrupt regular income and supplementary benefits.

The resort to debt to pay fuel bills and cover the patchy income and financial exclusion means accessing small loans at extortionate rates. And the cost of housing as a percentage to income is at a 17-year high.

The lack of living wage and in-work poverty is not just about having a low level of skills; low pay is also a by-product of racial and gender discrimination. More than a third of all ethnic minority groups live in poverty. Newly published research by the Fawcett Society shows the gender pay gap causes child poverty.

Many double-income families in Britain are struggling to make ends meet, so it is no surprise to hear from the Fawcett Society report that four in 10 children in poverty are in single-parent households. A further three out of 10 are in households where the father works full-time, but the mother is on low income or no income.

In addition, statistics show lone mothers are at double the risk of being in poverty as couples with children. UK mothers are at greater risk of poverty than in any other western European country. Part of the reason for this is the type of work women are faced with after motherhood. They move into low-paid work as cleaners, carers, temps, homeworkers or work in the “grey economy”, which does not keep them above the poverty line.

The state entitlement of 12.5 hours a week of pre-school care for three to four-year-olds is long enough to allow perhaps four hours’ employment spread over five days once travelling time is included.

Some policy solutions might be to make gender pay audits compulsory for all organisations and increase the number of hours mothers can work without losing their benefits from four to 16, as well as doubling the number of hours of state pre-school education.

There will be much comment about Khyra slipping through the system, as there was with Victoria Climbie, and while that may or may not prove to be true of the social work system, sadly child poverty in Britain is at this critical level. The impact of the state on Khyra’s life is not just about the interface of the family and the social work system, but is as much about the matrix of policies and services that shaped her chances.

It is about the political and economic culture of poverty and inequality in the UK today. And this is what the discussion needs to be about, rather than simply finger pointing at the social services.

The UK has the lowest levels of social mobility across the generations in the industrialised world. Children reproduce their parents’ earning brackets in more than 50% of cases, which is far higher than in other Western countries. Rather than alleviate the problem, badly framed and unreformed policies tend to create, recreate and perpetuate the conditions for poverty.

Yet well-framed policy backed with cash can mitigate against poverty. Not only anti-poverty policy, but the combined effect of all the policies, laws, tribunals and practices.

In this spirit, the Scottish government announced in January this year a wide-ranging discussion on tackling poverty, inequality and deprivation, the deadline of which has been extended until June 30. At its launch, cabinet secretary for health and wellbeing Nicola Sturgeon said the debate would go “to the heart of the kind of Scotland we want to build for the future”. The discussion document includes targets to create a wealthier and fairer Scotland.

The civilisation of a country is judged on how it treats its vulnerable people, the voiceless and its children. In light of Khyra Ishaq’s death we have to ask again about how the children in our society are faring. It is time to put ending child poverty at the top of the political agenda backed by financial commitment.

It grieves me more than I can tell you that Khyra Ishaq was a child of our time.