Ministers have no clear plans to tackle rising child poverty, while a lack of focus and leadership has hindered efforts to reduce the numbers of youngpeople living in hardship, a cross-party group of MPs has said.

The House of Commons work and pensions select committee said ministers needed to draw up a fresh cross-departmental anti-poverty strategy driven from No 10 and underpinned by fresh and robust evidence of the scale of the problem.

“At the moment, the government has no strategy and no measurable objectives against which it can be held to account,” said the committee chair Stephen Timms. “How can it hope to reduce child poverty when it doesn’t have a plan?”

He added: “If a generation of young people facing poorer educational outcomes and chronic health problems are to be lifted out of poverty, there needs to be clear leadership and a strategy driven from the top to ensure that every part of government is focused on tackling the problems that they face.”

Latest figures, from 2019-20, estimate about 14.5 million people in the UK are in relative poverty after housing costs (22%), including about 4.3 million children (31%). The pandemic is likely to see this increase, while some estimates suggest the withdrawal of the £20 uplift to universal credit will push at least 500,000 below the breadline.

The committee noted the government has not had a UK-wide child poverty strategy since 2017, leaving England is the only one of the four UK countries without one. It urged ministers to commit to a cross-government strategy to reduce child poverty, setting clear and measurable objectives using the latest evidence.

“We heard strong views that the absence of a strategy has left the government without a clear focus on tackling child poverty, with departments working in silos and a lack of clear leadership,” the committee report said.

It also criticised the Department for Work and Pensions’ failure to produce up-to-date statistics on the impact of the pandemic on child poverty, saying this was “surprising” given its departmental responsibilities for poverty.

Labour has pledged to establish a new child poverty reduction unit inside No 10, saying it will draw up plans to deliver a cross-government strategy reversing the rise in the numbers of children living in poverty since 2010.

Child Poverty Action Group chief executive Alison Garnham said: “The committee is right to insist on a cross-departmental poverty-reduction plan with clear targets and championed from No 10. Without that focus and commitment, rising poverty will prove to be a ticking timebomb for children and for our wider prosperity.”

A government spokesperson said: “We know that children in households where every adult is working are much less likely to be in poverty. That’s why our multi-billion pound plan for jobs is helping people across the country improve their skills and move forward in their working lives.”

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