End Of Child Poverty Is Still Aim, Says Purnell

Labour is making the fight against child poverty a central aim because the party feels “outrage” at the waste of lives, unlike the Tories who pay “lip service” to the government’s commitments, a senior cabinet minister said yesterday.

In a rallying cry to the Labour party to unite behind Gordon Brown after “grim” local election results, the work and pensions secretary, James Purnell, claimed that the fight against poverty binds old and New Labour, and allows the party to expose the Tories. Speaking to the Fabian Society, he said: “When Tony Blair and Gordon Brown committed us to the goal of eradicating child poverty they spoke for everyone in this party. They also hit its nerve centre. The child poverty target links old and New Labour. The outrage we feel at the waste of lives lived in poverty is what links the Labour party of 2008 with the Labour party of 1908.”

Purnell, who worked in Downing Street in the early Blair years, added that the Tories had accepted the need to tackle poverty. But he questioned their commitment because they had raised doubts about tax credits, the central lever for distributing money to the less well-off, and had spoken of the need to look at the poorest people who earn 40% of median income – the official definition of poverty is people on 60% of median income.

“The Tories don’t want to eradicate poverty,” Purnell said. “They want to redefine it. All of a sudden, 2.5 million children are no longer poor, as if by magic.”

Chris Grayling, the shadow work and pensions secretary, dismissed Purnell’s criticism. “The reason we want to talk about the number of people in severe poverty is that the number of people living in the most difficult circumstances has risen sharply in the past two years. This makes a mockery of the government’s claims to be tackling poverty in Britain today.”

The government has faced criticism in the labour movement because it is unlikely to meet its 2010 target for halving child poverty. Blair and Brown, as Purnell said, promised nearly 10 years ago to abolish child poverty by 2020. It is now accepted that it will be almost impossible for the government to hit even the interim 2010 milestone of halving child poverty.

Purnell said the government had taken 600,000 children out of poverty and he outlined further steps. A lone parents programme, which has ensured that participants earn 24% more than parents who do not sign up, will be intensified, with a £40 weekly bonus for single parents who return to work, advice on how to stay in work, and a £300 payment for people who run into trouble in the first six months after their return to work. “That is the mark of a government that has a real energy,” he said.

Hours after Purnell’s speech, another figure from Blair’s Downing Street offered advice. Jon Cruddas, the MP for Dagenham, said Brown had to understand that David Cameron was more than a “toff”. He said: “We are failing to understand some of the profound shifts that are occurring in modern Conservatism. Simply caricaturing them as a bunch of posh boys fails to understand some major ideological moves away from Thatcher.

“Simply talking about the same old Tories having no policies misses the emotional shifts. So Boris Johnson and David Cameron can be on the right side of the electorate in unseating the greatest London Labour politician ever. That isn’t because they’re a couple of posh boys.”