Common causes: the origins of the Child Poverty Action Group and its relations with social work

Caroline NorrieCaroline Norrie is Research Fellow at the Social Care Workforce Research Unit in the Policy Institute at King’s. (1,049 words)

The Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) is 50 this year. As part of the celebrations, last month the Social Care Workforce Research Unit jointly hosted a seminar with the Social Work History Network to highlight the history of CPAG and its links with the social work profession.

CPAG is the leading national pressure group working to end poverty among children, young people and families. It campaigns to influence policy; produces information about access to benefits; and provides training for professionals across the UK about welfare rights (including tax credits, and universal credit).

The event was chaired by Professor Pat Thane from the King’s College London’s Institute of Contemporary British History who is compiling a history of CPAG. She introduced the afternoon’s four speakers as well as describing her own research examining archive material acquired from national and local branches of CPAG. As she explained, CPAG emerged in 1965 as one of the first of a wave of pressure groups set up to promote social issues in the UK as it became clear that the post-war welfare state had not eliminated poverty and associated social problems. Pat described CPAG’s role in important campaigns such as improving Family Allowances (1965), improving take-up of benefits by running Welfare Rights Stalls across the country in the 1960s and being instrumental in the introduction of child benefit (1977). Records show at its inception CPAG membership was predominantly made up of social workers and university sociologists, many based in the local branches.

Researcher on the history of CPAG, Ruth Davidson, continued the presentation of archive material highlighting key CPAG publications such as, A Guide to National Welfare Benefits (1972), which was influential in kick-starting the UK Welfare Rights movement. Audience members recalled how the Welfare Rights Handbooks were ‘part of every social worker’s toolkit’ and debated whether social workers had ‘lost the confidence to campaign on behalf of their clients or speak out to the press about issues’. One audience member pondered how in the 1970s part of the social worker’s role was to understand welfare benefits and activate these for clients, whereas nowadays there seemed no time for this work.

Frank Field MP (Director of CPAG from 1969-79) and Baroness Molly Meacher, social worker and crossbench peer (who ran the CPAG campaign for what became child benefit in 1971-2) were the next joint speakers. Frank argued that politics had to be put at the very centre of the history of the CPAG—as its achievements could not be understood outside of this context. Frank took the opportunity to highlight his current concern that charities are failing to hold the government to account and their campaigning wings have been silenced as charities have ‘effectively been bought’ owing to their dependence on government funding, which has increased hugely with the out-sourcing of services to the private/charity sector. However, this is not so with CPAG, which has never taken government funding.

Moving the discussion back to the past, Molly outlined the important role of high quality research in the history of CPAG. The Family Allowance Campaign for example (where politicians were persuaded to pay funds to the primary carer, generally mothers), was influenced by a study which had identified poverty as a life course problem, as well as research which highlighted the lack of take-up of benefits by those who were entitled to them. More recently, she observed, a study has shown how grotesque inequality has become accepted within society.

Professor Jane Tunstill, social worker and Visiting Professor at SCWRU, explored the relationship between poverty and social work in her talk. She described the ‘critical friendship’ between CPAG and social work and the role of CPAG in helping to promote progressive models of social work (encompassing ideas of class and poverty) rather than previous dominant psychoanalytical approaches which placed blame on individuals themselves. She noted CPAG’s contribution as: consciousness raising (highlighting the link between poverty, inequality and intervention); knowledge transfer and skills building; reframing the knowledge base by reframing the research questions; and advocacy and welfare rights advice. Jane also discussed the role of CPAG in the formation of the Family Rights Group charity which started in 1975 following campaigns to highlight the limitations of the 1975 Children Act, in respect of children and their families.

Successes such as the original Sure Start agenda and the 1999 New Labour pledges to end child poverty in 2020 (which became law in the 2010 Child Poverty Act) were noted as highs. However, current challenges identified by Jane include government abandonment of the internationally acknowledged income-based definition of poverty; scrapping of poverty targets; roll back and changed agenda of Sure Start; the ‘stigmatising’ Troubled Families Programme; the spectre of privatisation of child protection services; and the introduction of the ‘de-professionalising’ Frontline social work training programme.

Finally, CPAG Policy Committee Member Geoff Fimister (who has been associated with CPAG in various capacities since 1971, including as a member of the National Executive Committee/Board of Trustees) discussed the role of social work in welfare rights and anti-poverty strategies. He analysed the role of Welfare Rights Officers in the 1960s in areas such as Tyneside and Newcastle and how they had spread across the UK and some of whom (despite cuts) are still surviving in councils today (often within Housing or Chief Executive departments). These roles were established under different structures within councils and CPAG was highly important in supporting them by providing the information they depended on. This had led to the slightly tongue in cheek comment that CPAG was at one time ‘a book selling business with a pressure group attached to it.’ Geoff described the Welfare Rights movement in the larger context as part of an anti-poverty movement that came from the USA.

For those involved in CPAG over the last 50 years and those with an interest in the history of social work or contemporary social history and politics, this seminar was a gem—entertaining and lively, it was also encouraging to witness some of the speakers’ continuing enthusiasm for the cause despite the current depressing picture. As CPAG Senior Policy and Research Officer, Moussa Haddad summed up in a recent article he has written on the topic, ‘CPAG’s history is as much a story of enduring themes and continued battles, as it is of progress, success and change’.

Caroline Norrie is Research Fellow at the Social Care Workforce Research Unit in the Policy Institute at King’s.

About the Social Work History Network

SWHN exists to explore the nature and growth of social work in order to inform contemporary policy and practice. Founded in 2000, it is an informal network of social workers, historians, archivists, researchers, educators, students, and social work policy makers. The Network meets three or four times a year to discuss papers given by invited speakers. Meetings are open to all.