Earlier today Frank Field addressed the Institute for Fiscal Studies Conference on Child Poverty and Children's Life Chances. Here is a summary of what Mr Field said:
"The 60 per cent of median earnings as a measure of poverty is enshrined in an Act of Parliament. It will act as a valuable defence for ensuring that the living standards of those at the bottom never get into free-fall, particularly at a time when a government is faced with making record cuts in public expenditure. But the measure has its limitations.
"I was the only MP to speak against the measure when the Bill was going through Parliament. I did so not for any lack of praise for the Labour Government that set itself the ambitious target of abolishing child poverty by 2020. Nor that such a goal was not important. Far from it.
"My concern stemmed from the belief that the measure was, simultaneously, too ambitious, but also, so lacking in ambition.
"Its ambition was audacious. No government had ever set itself such a target. But I felt also that it lacked ambition because should it be achieved – and I expressed doubts on how realisable the goal was in the literal sense of the term – I doubted just how much it would transform the lives that stretched before those children who are being cared for in the households with the lowest incomes.
"Of course any increase in the incomes of these families will be welcomed. But the target did too little for those children whose family’s income was always towards the bottom end. And, equally important, it drew too much attention to the yearly snapshots of what the distribution of income showed, and focussed too little interest in how we might radically transform the life chances of those children who will otherwise be set on a diet of low pay and unemployment until the end of time.
"Hence the terms of reference the Prime Minister gave me for an Independent Review of Poverty and Life Chances. I submitted a report to the Prime Minister at the end of the Parliamentary session giving him some idea of the progress the Review had made during its first two months. Next week, as promised, I shall be sending him a more detailed report outlining what some of our main recommendations are likely to be. I wanted him briefed as the Government gets down to the most serious stage of setting departmental expenditure limits.
"The second report is exclusively concerned about how we are attempting to construct an index of life opportunities and why such an index could open up a new phase in what has been, in this country, a century long anti poverty strategy.
"One conclusion has stood out from all the academic readings in which I have been engrossed over the past three months. Using one of our cohort studies, Leon Feinstein measured children’s abilities at age two, three and five years and then went on to look at what happens to these children in school.
"The gob-smacking findings (to use that gentle phrase of Chris Patten) was that, as children turn up for their first day at school, they possess a wide range of abilities and that children from families on the lowest incomes were more likely to be towards the bottom end of the range of these abilities. And there they remained when a second set of tests were taken at ten.
"Even worse was that those children from the least privileged homes who did score well in the early years– and way above some children from much richer homes – were found at aged 10 to have lost ground at school and to have been overtaken as a group by what were poorer achieving children from richer homes.
"The Review’s attention has therefore, unsurprisingly, been centred on what happens during those first five years that so impacts on a child’s life-time opportunities. As the Review will be written advocating action, we are considering whether it is possible to marshal a range of intelligent interventions that radically alter what would otherwise be the current fate of poorer children.
"We have not fallen into the trap of what some neuroscientists call the ‘the baby determinist’ syndrome. The Review will not be arguing that the only guide to influencing the outcome of a child’s life is during the crucial first three years when so much of the early brain network is formed. But neither will we be saying the opposite; that it doesn’t matter too much what happens to children at the early stages of life because they can make up for a poor start later. Later interventions do look much less cost-effective, and in general a programme of later interventions – that taxpayers know as schools – seems not to have that much impact on equalising those gross inequalities present as children cross the school threshold for the first time.
"I do not wish to go into any further detail as the Review is still a work in progress, and indeed the Review will first be presented to the Prime Minister. But I hope I have conveyed to you why there is a sense of excitement amongst the Review team. That excitement comes from seeing if it is possible to build up a new framework so that it becomes impossible to predict a life on low income for children coming from the poorest homes."