15 May 2024

‘Child poverty has not fallen since Tories came in’, says Gordon Brown

Labour’s last prime minister, Gordon Brown, has warned that food banks are increasingly taking over from the welfare state and called for urgent action by the current government.

We spoke to him, from a charity warehouse in Fife, and began by asking him what he meant when he spoke about “austerity’s children”.

Gordon Brown: Austerity’s children are the four and a half million children who are in poverty, a figure that has gone up dramatically over the last few years. And I think it’s sometimes forgotten that 70% of the children in poverty are in families where someone is working. This is not the workshy or the indolent. These are families where people are working, but they just cannot make ends meet, and that’s what’s got to change, and I want urgent action from the chancellor in the September budget that he’s planning.

Krishnan Guru-Murthy: But people are used to hearing Rishi Sunak tell them that poverty has fallen, that hundreds of thousands of children are out of poverty since 2010, and they’re hearing Conservative ministers even today saying benefits can’t be a lifestyle choice anymore.

‘Child poverty is rising’

Gordon Brown: Since the Conservative government came in, the figures for 2010-11 to now, our child poverty has not fallen and child poverty is rising, and it’s rising probably at the rate of about 100,000 children a year at the moment, and that’s because of a number of things. The emergency support has stopped. The household support fund is about to go in October. You’ve already got charities saying that summer hunger, because there’s not enough provision for kids when they’re out of school, and about 800,000 kids who are in poverty don’t get free school meals. You just need to look at the whole pattern of the last few years and what is likely to happen if nothing is done.

Krishnan Guru-Murthy: So what do you think the chancellor could do?

Gordon Brown: I’m suggesting, within his fiscal rules, the banks don’t get interest payments from the Bank of England when they launch their money as commercial banks at the bank. That could raise upwards of 1.3 billion. I think we could create a social impact fund, and I think he should continue the household support fund. But I suppose the main thing is he could help people in work to get out of poverty, and it’s one of his Conservative former ministers, Baroness Stroud, who said if you actually raise the minimum wage by another 50 per hour, you could take 500,000 people out of poverty.

Krishnan Guru-Murthy: So you’re saying that you could raise around £3 billion without having to borrow or raise taxes, but what would you actually do with it?

‘DWP biggest debt collector in country’

Gordon Brown: Exactly. You need a root and branch review of universal credit. It is simply not working. You’ve got the two child rule, you’ve got the bedroom tax, you’ve got the cap on benefits, you’ve got the housing benefit limit, you’ve got the deductions. I mean, half of people on universal credit are paying back loans that they had to take out because they didn’t get payments for the first five weeks on universal credit. So the DWP, that department, has become the biggest debt collector in the country. Now these are the kind of things that have got to be looked at. You need a root and branch review to do it. The quicker it starts the better, because it is urgent that children are kept out of poverty.

Krishnan Guru-Murthy: You’ve been critical of the two child benefit cap, but to remove that would require more money on top of what you’re saying you could raise.

Gordon Brown: One and a half million children are now affected by the two child rule because it doesn’t just affect the third child, it’s every child in the family. And it’s about £60 a week that that family is losing. And to be honest, 60% of these families are in work, they’re not the picture that is being presented by the government, they are people who are working, trying to make ends meet, and the children are suffering as a result of this rule. I think we’ve got to persuade the public, as well as the government, that this has got to change.

Krishnan Guru-Murthy: Just on that, if you think back to 1997, when you were shadow chancellor. Had Jim Callaghan come along with some detailed ideas of what you should be doing, how would you have welcomed them? I’m thinking how Rachel Reeves should take what you’re saying.

‘Poverty I didn’t think I would ever see again’

Gordon Brown: My thoughts are about urgent action directed to the current chancellor. We can look at what happens after an election. I’m not really talking about Westminster politics, about who does what. I’m talking about us as a country wanting to do something about child poverty, and I’m here in Lochgelly and Fife, where I was the member of parliament, an area which I know very well, where I was brought up, and I’m seeing poverty that I didn’t think I would ever see again in my lifetime.

Krishnan Guru-Murthy: Does it concern you at all, though, that the current Labour Party is having to play a little bit on the Conservative ground? The current shadow welfare secretary is also talking about a life on benefits not being an option. It’s kind of left to you, a former prime minister, to talk about the realities of child poverty. Isn’t that what Labour should be talking about more.

Gordon Brown: Alison McGovern was speaking this morning about the Trussell Trust report showing that three million food parcels were handed out last year, and she outlined seven things that the the Labour Party wanted to see done. So the Labour Party, Alison and the others who are speaking on these issues are entering this debate. The important thing, however, is that the country as a whole realises that if you don’t invest in your children now, you’re condemning us to huge problems later. We are writing the future history of our country and it’s a history of neglect.