Ministers have abolished the civil service’s once high-profile child poverty unit, prompting warnings from MPs and charities that political focus on the issue has been abandoned by Theresa May.
The admission came in answers to parliamentary questions, which revealed that the team set up under Tony Blair’s government has been subsumed into the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), after seeing its staffing halved in three years.
Dan Jarvis, the Labour MP whose questioning uncovered the closure, said the decision ran contrary to the May’s pledge to govern on the basis of social justice and equal life chances.
“When the prime minister stood on the steps of Downing Street, she promised to fight the burning injustice of being born poor and lead a government that worked for everyone,” he said. “Having a country that works for everyone requires a government prepared to both help those who fall behind and stop people being disadvantaged from the outset. Theresa May has no unit, no target and no intention of eliminating child poverty.”
There were 3.9 million children living in poverty in the UK in 2014-15, according to DWP figures quoted by the Child Poverty Action Group, amounting to 28% of all children in the UK.
The child poverty unit was jointly run by the DWP, the Department for Education (DfE) and the Treasury and was formerly one of the government’s most high profile organisations devoted to improving social mobility.
It was set up in 1999 under Blair’s government, part of a much-touted ambition to eliminate childhood poverty within two decades. That target was dropped earlier this year amid a restructuring of goals around a wider measure of life chances, also taking in issues such as debt and addiction.
Charities dealing with child poverty described the news as alarming and likely to mean child poverty becoming less of a priority for May’s government.
Alison Garnham, chief executive of the Child Poverty Action Group, said the structure of the child poverty unit had meant the subject was considered across government.
“A move to restrict the unit to just one department would be worrying and could potentially downgrade the unit’s status and weaken its reach, influence and effectiveness right across government,” she said.
The Institute for Fiscal Studies was projecting a 50% increase in child poverty by 2020, rather than its elimination, Garnham said, adding: “The threat level has escalated. We should be adding to our resources for getting children out of poverty, not diminishing them.”
However, a DWP spokeswoman said it was “nonsense” to suggest that the end of the standalone child poverty unit meant the government was not committed to its work.
She said: “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 record 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.”
In 2013, the child poverty unit had just over 23 full time-equivalent staff members, which had fallen to 10.5 for 2015-16, an earlier ministerial statement had revealed. All the work of the unit has now been transferred into the DWP, according to junior minister Damian Hinds, who responded to Jarvis’s question.
Child poverty had also been dealt with by the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, but the child poverty aspect of its remit was removed earlier this year when it was restructured as the Social Mobility Commission.
The commission itself has fewer civil service staff than it does commissioners, according to an answer to another parliamentary question from Jarvis. According to the DfE, it is limited to seven staff but has eight commissioners.
It has also emerged that the DWP is to permanently abandon its much-delayed life chances strategy, one of David Cameron’s stated flagship policies for his planned last term as prime minister, which was originally scheduled to be launched in June.
It was reported last month that this was being dropped in favour of a wider scheme on social justice, intended to focus not just on the very poor but also May’s favoured demographic of the “just about managing” households.
In response to another question from Jarvis, who has introduced a private member’s bill to put in place a new target for reducing childhood poverty, the DWP confirmed that the life chances strategy was being replaced by a green paper on social justice in the New Year.
Jarvis is leading a debate on child poverty in the House of Commons on Tuesday.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010