Frank Field MP
Your MP for Birkenhead
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Money is not enough to improve children's lives


16 October 2010
Next week the Government will start cutting public expenditure. It is committed to protecting the poor and this protection in the past has been offered by way of increasing tax credits.

For the first time ever I am arguing for a different approach. Why?

Over the past four months, while conducting a review for the Prime Minister on Poverty and Life Chances, I have become even more convinced that we need to develop a very different strategy to beat poverty.

The one piece of research that has knocked me sideways shows that we are able to predict from tests on children's skill levels at ages three and at five the kind of lives these children will lead.

The big determinant here is not money. If parents adopt a ‘tough love' approach to parenting, setting clear guidelines to behaviour, and within that loving and nurturing their children, we know that those children will have high skill levels at three and five.

So why should the Government now start diverting any new money it might pay out of child tax credit increases to services for young children? In his emergency budget the Chancellor increased Child Tax Credit.

This increase will help hard-pressed families with their budgeting. But the question we should ask is could this money be better spent on beating poverty by raising those skill levels?

Well before the last election the Labour Government was coming to see its programmes, like Sure Start, as the means of increasing the life chances of poorer children. Yet the total Sure Start budget is less than the last single increase in child tax credits announced in the emergency budget - an increase of £1.2bn.

Put another way, we could have doubled the reach of Sure Start, or doubled the offer of nursery education for three to four year olds, at the same cost as giving parents £3 a week per child increase in tax credits.

We know that most parents want to do the very best they can by their children.

But it is now more difficult to be a good parent.

The aim of the Labour Government in developing these services for under-fives was to empower more and more parents to undertake those activities which will increase their children's skills by the age of five.

I will be presenting to the Prime Minister by December a new index of life opportunities which will measure the skills of three and five year olds. We will then be able to judge how successful we are by providing help and support in expanding the life opportunities for our poorest children.

When this strategy works - it works for richer children - we will see fewer young people leaving school unable to get a job, or, if they do, gaining an unskilled one.

If today's poorer children are to get good jobs - and prevent their children from being poor - we need to raise their skill levels before they start school.

So on Wednesday I hope any money the Chancellor announces for poorer children will go to help their parents become the agents for expanding their children's life opportunities.

The Liverpool Echo, 16 October 2010


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