You might be forgiven for dismissing it as a sick joke. The economy is teetering on the edge, businesses are going bust by the bucketload, and the predictions are for another 350,000 unemployed – but Gordon Brown has declared he’ll legislate against child poverty.

To quote the prime minister: ‘We will in law make it the duty of government by 2020 to eradicate child poverty in this country.’ Does he actually mean it? Will the next two or three governments be legally obliged to meet this commitment? If so, by what definition and how will it be enforced?

It would be easy to brand such a vow as a cynical pledge by an outgoing premier who can’t and won’t be held to account. But if we know anything about Gordon Brown, it’s that he genuinely believes child poverty is a scandal. So what exactly does his promise mean?

First, it doesn’t necessarily imply the End Child Poverty coalition’s call for £3bn to help the poorest families will be heeded. Unless he’s found a sneaky way of diverting some of the billions going into bankers’ back pockets, we’re still facing ever tighter constraints on public spending which will be felt hardest by those with least.

It’s those who are most dependent on state benefits and essential services who feel the squeeze first, and the current downturn (or recession, crisis, calamity or Armageddon – choose the description most appropriate to your financial circumstances) is unlikely to be an exception.

Second, it doesn’t mean living standards for the poorest are about to get better. You don’t have to be Alistair Darling or Yvette Cooper to work out the impact on public finances of falling tax revenues, increased social security spending, mounting public debt and an apparently limitless demand from the financial system for state underwriting.

What it should mean, though, is that our first concern as we go through this crisis (sorry, spot of turbulence) should be the families who are worst off.

The fact that 10,000 people turned out to support the End Child Poverty rally last weekend, at a time when half the nation are panicking about their mortgages, signals that it isn’t just the radical fringe who are demanding a realignment of principles and priorities.

That realignment of principles begins by accepting that the test of economic policies, governance, and social justice is the position of those at the bottom of the pile – not the balance sheets of the people who are doing well.

The proof, as ever, is in the colour of the government’s money. We eagerly await the pre-budget report. In the current climate, is £3bn such a lot to ask for?

Julian Dobson, editorial director, New Start Online magazine

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