ADCS conference: Directors urged to improve benefit take-up

A senior civil servant yesterday urged directors of children’s services to improve take-up of benefits and tax credits to help the government’s bid to eradicate child poverty by 2020. Caroline Kelham, head of the government’s child poverty unit, said £800m in tax credits currently went unclaimed by 200,000 families in England each year.

Speaking at the Association of Directors of Children’s Services annual conference in Manchester, where the central theme is reducing the impact of family poverty, she said: “That is like having a whole new budget if we can sort that out.”
Kelham added: “Professionals should be signposting families to information about tax credits and work in partnership with Jobcentre Plus, for example.”

Maggie Atkinson, president of the ADCS, said directors could communicate with their constituents through simple methods such as newsletters, to remind them of available benefits.

However, Mary Evans, deputy director of children’s services at Wandsworth Council in London, said the system for claiming child tax credits was “opaque”.

Poverty rise “really disappointing”

In response, Kelham said the Treasury was currently consulting on possible reforms. She admitted that the latest official figures, which showed child poverty had increased by 100,000 from 2005-6 to 2006-7, were “really, really disappointing”.

“But that shows there are not just a few things you can twiddle and it goes away,” she added. Rather, it was vital that children’s directors offered “strategic leadership”, she said, encouraging chief executives and lead members to come on board with local efforts to reduce poverty.

Frontline workers would also play a crucial part in providing innovative practice, she said. Last month, the Department for Children, Schools and Families promised at least £20m for councils to trial innovative ways of tackling the causes and consequences of child poverty, and Kelham urged delegates to bid for a slice of the money.

Small steps to make targets achievable

She added: “We can’t push this from the centre. If everyone makes small steps and small contributions then targets become achievable.”

Other priorities over the next ten years included encouraging parents to gain the skills and confidence needed for employment, Kelham explained, along with improving transport links to allow them to travel to work, and providing high-quality early years education.

The child poverty unit was set up last October to lead the government’s drive to halve child poverty by 2010-11 – against 1998-99 levels – and eradicate it by 2020. It includes officials from the DCSF, Department for Work and Pensions and the Treasury.

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