CPAG History: At Christmas

As Christmas approached in 1967, the Child Poverty Action Group had been operating for two years. Initially it was founded by a group of social policy academics in order to lobby the new Labour government to make significant increases to family allowances. However, it now took on a rather different issue.

In December 1967, CPAG wrote to the Home Secretary “asking that prisoners due for release just after Christmas should be to be reunited with their families for Christmas”. This “Christian gesture” was turned down with a letter from James Callaghan’s private secretary saying interference with a court-imposed sentence was “a very exceptional course”. The CPAG press release in response noted that Pentonville alone had 14 men due for release on 27 December and said the decision was “particularly inhumane” given all those due for release between the 23rd and 26th were being released together on the 22nd, whereas the principle was not extended one day further. This, they said, would effect “hundreds of families for whom Christmas will otherwise be a time of sadness and resentment”.

I was interested to find this when reading through the CPAG executive committee minutes, as it didn’t really fit with my impression of CPAG’s early history. It suggested a broader view of ‘family poverty’ than I had expected. But I also found what I was expecting, and that was a campaign to raise awareness of hardship during the festive season. Really Christmas serving as a seasonal backdrop to a timely call to conscience in the long-running campaign against poverty, with the most important solutions still to be found in technical changes to the tax and benefit system. This is essentially what we still see today with the CPAG Christmas Appeal, and it has a history as long as the group itself.

This was evident from the very beginning. Although the CPAG was formed in March 1965, it was really launched in December – on the eve of Christmas. On Thursday 23rd December 1965, a small delegation from CPAG met with Prime Minister Harold Wilson and delivered to him a memorandum that laid out the evidence that, contrary to popular belief, the welfare state had not abolished poverty. And the emotive statistic: there were at least half a million children in poverty in Britain. This policy document was delivered as a political event, with notable media fanfare – interviews and reports in a range of newspapers and television news programmes. All of which was designed to coincide with a seasonal interest in poverty, with documentaries on both BBC2 and ITV.

This use of Christmas to draw attention to the wider situation of family poverty was true also at the local level. For example, in 1966 the Birmingham Post ran an article on child poverty at Christmas – noting how poverty would cast a shadow over festivities for many families – with facts and figures supplied by the local group. Ten years later, Christmas was also chosen as the right time to release a new survey on family poverty. This time CPAG Director Frank Field and Sheila Cliff of the Family Service Units worked together to present a survey of the circumstances of families they’d been working with over the last few years. The report was published in December 1976 and given a title from one participant’s comment: “I dread to think about Christmas.” However, it actually had very little to do with Christmas. It presented the findings from their questionnaire on the importance of breadwinner employment, the worry caused by fuel poverty and the hidden costs that came with a supposedly ‘free’ education. It talked about the difficulties of finding the money for a night out or a holiday. It called for a return to a policy of full employment as a way to end this situation. What it did not do, was consider really consider why Christmas in particular should cause feelings of dread amongst struggling parents.

While writing letters to the Home Secretary about prisoner release, the CPAG was also involved in a much bigger campaign to temporarily halt one of their most hated policies: the wage stop. This was a policy designed to address that constant fear in welfare politics – that those receiving benefits might end up on a higher income than those in work. One difficulty here is that benefits are not only given to those out of work, so policies designed to address this can often impact harshly on those already working in low income jobs and/or struggling with sickness, disability or particular housing problems. This was so for the 1960s Labour government’s solution of the wage stop. This was a rule that allowed for benefits to be reduced below the basic rate to ensure this principle. CPAG campaigned against this, calling for an end to the government deliberately forcing families into poverty. However, they took on a particular campaign against it during the hard times of winter 1967-68, calling for a suspension of the wage stop as an ’emergency measure’.  A campaign leaflet explained their argument:

“In conditions of full employment, there may be some practical justification for the wage stop–though it can never be morally right for the state to condemn a family with children to live in poverty. With unemployment at its present level, to say nothing of the higher levels expected in the coming months, the wage stop is not only immoral, it is utterly futile. It will not create a single job. It will merely ensure that large numbers of innocent children of equally innocent parents do not have adequate food and clothing this winter. Already well over 100,000 children are affected. The total could easily reach 200,000 by Christmas.”

We can go back to Dickens, finding child and family poverty as a particular focus for charity at Christmas. Claudia Soares has found Victorian and Edwardian waifs and strays homes using Christmas as a cultural frame for their fundraising efforts. This was a spirit into which CPAG sought to tap. The season of goodwill provided the frame rather than the subject. The difficult caused by paying for presents and festive food was part of occasional pieces in the CPAG journal POVERTY. However, it is the regular hardships of family poverty that CPAG has consistently chosen to campaign on at Christmas time. With seasonal spending at significantly higher rates in recent years than when the CPAG was founded, perhaps we should be asking whether the consumer pressures of Christmas have become part of the problem?

Note on sources: quotations used here are from the CPAG files, recently deposited to the LSE special collections.

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