First, for the last 30 years, poverty in the UK has hovered close to the one-in-five mark, mostly a little below, but sometimes a little above, but a rate almost double the level of the 1970s and much higher than the average amongst other rich nations. This has been driven by a sustained widening in the gap between top and bottom along with the erosion of life chances.
Stewart is replying to a piece on Left Foot Forward yesterday by IPPR director Nick Pearce, in which he argued that it was time for a rethink on child poverty targets
In reply to Nick Pearce, it is vital to re-iterate the backdrop to the current debate on poverty.
First, for the last 30 years, poverty in the UK has hovered close to the one-in-five mark, mostly a little below, but sometimes a little above, but a rate almost double the level of the 1970s and much higher than the average amongst other rich nations.
This has been driven by a sustained widening in the gap between top and bottom along with the erosion of life chances.
By making cutting these rates a priority, Labour in power made some progress through a mix of policies aimed at raising low incomes and tackling some of the long term roots of poverty. In doing so they succeeded in lowering the numbers – at least for a while.
By introducing the 2010 Child Poverty Act and its four targets, they not only added a bold public and statutory commitment to Tony Blair’s 1999 claim to end poverty within a generation (made in a warmer economic climate), they also achieved a remarkable political coup, to get both parties to the current coalition to sign up.
Secondly, despite voting for the Act, almost from the day the coalition formed a government it has been trying to find ways of distancing itself from the 2010 commitments. It would like to ditch the targets and repeal the Act, but has been unable to do so formally.
It has turned Iain Duncan Smith’s attack on ‘poverty plus a pound’ into ‘poverty minus a pound’. It has returned to the old right rhetoric of the deserving and undeserving poor; and it is attempting – so far unsuccessfully – to find a new non-relative approach to poverty that would define much of the problem away. It is also embarking on benefit and other changes that will take poverty rates close to a quarter of the population over the next five years.
What I attempted to do in yesterday’s article was present the counter-case to coalition’s strategy. When Nick Pearce says I accused him of ‘giving cover to the coalition’, this is not the case. I was in fact putting the coalition in the dock. What the article says is ‘The effect of the (coalition’s) ‘rethink’ – essentially a barely disguised cover for dropping promises made in opposition – is now becoming all too clear.’
Of course, Labour’s own approach would have to take account of economic reality, but tackling poverty and cutting inequality – the central cause of rising poverty – are not just about better social outcomes and a more just society, they are critical to achieving a robust and sustainable economy.
Achieving such goals means holding the line on the principles at stake. The Act levies a statutory responsibility and is the nearest we have to a statement of intent on the societal obligation to tackle poverty.
This means confirming it backs the principles of the Act and its targets, that it remains committed to relative poverty measures and that tackling poverty means firing on more than one cylinder – taking on the long term causes (more jobs, better wages, access to childcare, a concerted attack on the earnings gap and other sources of inequality) yes, but also not allowing the income floor to slip any more than it has since 2010.
Nailing any ambiguity would best be achieved by Labour confirming they remain wedded to the Act and its targets – to getting poverty levels down – but with an extended timetable.
This should ideally be based on the costed impact of other policy measures under consideration – from the partial implementation of the living wage to improved child care opportunities and lower fuel and rent costs. The timetable for achieving this could then be properly set.
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