There appears to be a lot to be said in principle for the child poverty target.
When it was passed into law it was the product of cross-party agreement. Many policies chop and change – and this sort of rare consensus could mean a more consistent approach.
It was long-term – it intended to set policy direction not just for one Parliament but for two or three, with an objective to eliminate child poverty by 2020.
It was joined up – no one department can solve child poverty on its own.
Unlike many government objectives, the target it set was measurable.
And, behavioural economics tells us that commitment devices can be very powerful drivers of behaviour. Giving a target the force of law looks like quite a good way of doing that.
So what’s not to like?
In reality, there are a number of worrying features about the child poverty target, and legislated policy targets more generally, as we set out in our report, which was based on a private roundtable held at the Institute in the summer of 2012.
Although participants saw advantages in a policy target in terms of internal and external signalling, and as a way of influencing decision-making on a continuing basis, there was a danger that an ambitious, courageous target could be a substitute for action. Our participants noted that there was a particular risk in a pre-election period, when a politically attractive target could be used to constrain a future administration – otherwise put, it could be used to set a political trap. The child poverty target was put into law in the dying days of the Brown administration; the opposition felt obliged to support it (opposing reducing child poverty isn’t a great election battle cry).
There were other dangers identified by our participants: the first was the risk of bringing the law into disrepute. If politicians really thought the courts might hold them personally liable for missing a legislated target, they would be much more reluctant to put them into law. But in practice, although putting a target into law made it “justiciable”, and introduced “legal uncertainty” government lawyers thought that courts would be unlikely to want to cross the line by mandating action to require a government to take action to meet the targets. Instead the most likely consequence was the political embarrassment of a “declaration of unlawfulness” – but one where the current secretary of state was likely to be able to argue that they had not even been elected to Parliament when the original target was agreed.
The second was that a badly specified target could drive wrong policy measures – aimed at meeting the target, not addressing the problem.
The third was simply that it increased public cynicism about politics and politicians. Setting ambitious targets with no clear way of achieving them undermines trust.
We suggested that Parliament needed to scrutinise these targets more seriously – to treat them as though the government meant them. Before putting aspiration into law, there needed to be a proper discussion of what actions and resources could be needed to deliver the target. That in turn would help the debate about whether the target itself was properly specified. And it would make sure that when politicians were praised for their boldness in committing to tackle a long-term policy problem, they deserved it.
There was another area where the government faced a legislated policy target – fuel poverty. This is the subject of one of our deep dive policy implementation case studies which we will be publishing later this spring.