Douglas Alexander, Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, said in a speech to the Child Poverty Action Group AGM today:
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Good afternoon, it’s a great privilege to be invited to speak at this Annual General Meeting. CPAG is an extraordinary organisation that combines the passionate advocacy of a vital cause with the detailed research and policy knowledge that has to lie behind any real change.
And I can say that when I was first handed your welfare and benefits handbook a few days into the job – all 1,406 pages – while it hugely impressed me about CPAG’s comprehensive knowledge, it did also rather add to my pre-existing sense that simplifying the benefits system might have its advantages.
I’m the first Labour politician to address a CPAG Annual General Meeting since the General Election in May. In Government it was all too easy to develop a pattern to these speeches: you would start by praising CPAG for its work, recite a string positive statistics about Labour’s record and then warn about the threat to progress represented by Conservative plans.
Today, I’d like to do try to something somewhat different and suggest a different conversation about how we talk about poverty in this country. I said last week, in a different context, that we were seeing the end of an era and the beginning of an experiment. But it couldn’t be more true in the context of poverty. Nick Clegg’s recent Hugo Young lecture was the most recent attempt to explain that experiment by a senior member of the Government, and I want to explain why I don’t think the approach it outlines is a good basis to secure a new political consensus about poverty. But I do, however, believe that that consensus may be possible, and I’d like to also give a few early thoughts on what it might look like.
The policy differences between Labour and the Conservatives were stark at the last election: there were 600,000 fewer children in poverty by March 2009 than in 1998. That’s compared to a Government that today pledges that their policies won’t increase child poverty for two years. No commitment to reduce it. No commitment, even, not to increase it after the next two years have elapsed, having seen child poverty double under the previous Tory Government. In fact a Parliamentary ans wer the Government gave today admitted that the hundreds of thousands of children they have said will be taken out of poverty by universal credit is only a figure pencilled in for 2018.
But the public debate too rarely got into those policy differences, and has instead too often been framed in reference to familiar stereotypes. The stereotype of the right is of the out of touch moralist who thinks that society was broken at some point during the 1960s but that enough stern lectures can put it right. Alternatively, the stereotype of the left is the “one more heave”, that says; if we just got one more billion or adjusted one more taper rate then we’d be able to solve Britain’s poverty problem.
These cartoon characters do an injustice to the seriousness of the debate on how to confront poverty in the 21st century. No one party has a monopoly on either compassion or practical proposals; that’s why I’ve said that I’ll judge the Government’s proposals on their merits and support reforms, like benefit simplification or the Work Programme that can help achieve progressive goals.
And nor does the right have a monopoly on realism when it comes to poor communities. My first home was a flat above a community centre in the city centre of Glasgow where my parents worked to provide assistance to the city’s homeless and unemployed.
This new Coalition Government had a chance to alter the public discourse about poverty. The Liberal Democrats brought with them into Government an historic tradition of Lloyd George, Keynes and Beveridge which did see the importance of tackling inequality and would sit in Government alongside a very different set of values in the Conservative Party.
So I read Nick Clegg’s Hugo Young lecture last month with considerable interest. But rather than giving expression to that philosophy in changed times, he instead ended up debasing the progressive liberal tradition by using familiar liberal language simply to clothe the orthodox rightwing arguments advocated by George Osborne.
Seeking to defend £18 billion of spending cuts to welfare, he came up with the phrase “Poverty plus a pound does not represent fairness”. Who thought that it did? But it’s a twisted logic that says because poverty plus a pound doesn’t achieve fairness alone, you can happily subtract hundreds of pounds from the incomes of the poorest people without making Britain more unfair.
Next, we’re told that only “old progressives” focus on poverty and income inequality, while we should be looking at social mobility. Again, the false choice is established and the narrow option is advocated. Social mobility matters enormously and yes, it’s driven in the early years, which is why in Government, we created Sure Start and made huge investments in primary education. The Field report last week had some interesting ideas on how we can build on precisely that work.
But these are goals that reinforce each other, not ones that pu ll in opposite directions. I want the brightest kids in the poorest communities to have just as much chance of becoming doctors or lawyers or even Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister, as the current occupants of all those roles.
But surely the first step is to make sure those children aren’t growing up in poverty and have the means to go on that school trip or get hold of the book that changes their aspirations? And even if we did reach that goal, could any progressive really be satisfied with a Britain that was socially mobile but was still scarred by high unemployment and millions growing up in poverty?
The reason Nick Clegg thinks we can’t do both is because of the austerity agenda he embraced at some point in the brief but fateful journey from Cowley Street to Downing Street. He even tries to justify his approach in terms of children and fairness. “There is nothing progressive about saddling the next generation with our debt” he informs us.
Bu t he doesn’t tell us how exactly he is planning to reduce the deficit. Child benefit frozen. Tax credits restricted and clawed back at a faster rate. Support for childcare reduced. Child Trust Funds abolished. More taken from the country’s families than the country’s banks. The next generation are exactly who are paying the price and they are paying it now, precisely when it will have the greatest impact on their future life chances.
But while Nick Clegg gets on with the job of debasing his party’s own tradition, is there still a way that a new consensus about poverty can be established? I think it can.
I think there are four building blocks for a new consensus on poverty that I hope at least some of the supporters of this Government could sign up to. But at the same time, we need to make sure this Government is held to account for their efforts to end relative child poverty, not some easier to meet definition of poverty, and that the 2020 target is a commit ment of every mainstream political party in this country.
Firstly, work remains the best route out of poverty. Even if we do eventually get back to pre-recession levels of unemployment, the employment rates for some groups would still be far below those in countries that do better on child poverty than we do.
Raising the lone parent employment rate to 75 per cent would take half a million children out of poverty, and that’s what has led this Government to go ahead with our plans to ask lone parents to start looking at part time work when their youngest child turns seven. And I’m willing to look at their proposals to change that age to five if they can produce a proper impact assessment and can show that they will match any toughening of conditionality with investment and support for affordable childcare.
Secondly, social mobility is crucial, it’s driven by education and it’s the early years that matter most. While I didn’t agree with everything in Frank Field’s report last week, when he says that early years determine a child’s chances in life, he’s exactly right. Although it seems to be an area where Nick Clegg wants to draw some artificial dividing lines with Labour, the fact is that we are the Party of Sure Start not just as a response to the need for better childcare provision, but as a response to the need for better, integrated support to improve life chances for the poorest kids.
The third building block is more contested; we have to reaffirm that inequality in our economy and our society matters. We have a relative poverty target in this country and there’s a reason why we do. One of the most striking features of the Unicef report last week was the finding that if, in Sweden, you took away all the progressive tax and benefit measures and just let the market determine how many children lived in poverty, you would still have a lower poverty rate than in the UK with all of our tax and benefit measures in force.
The New Policy Institute study earlier this week, found that about half of the children growing up in poverty do so despite the fact that at least one of their parents goes out to work. In work poverty goes too easily unnoticed and is perhaps harder to deal with because it goes to the kind of economy we want to see in our country. For that reason, Ed Miliband is right to be advocating the living wage.
Because we need to find ways, not just of moving people into work and then topping up their wages, but helping them get on in work, just as our growth strategy has to be based not just on creating more jobs, but creating more higher skill, higher value added jobs that command better wages.
The final building block is the most elusive and, although it actually comes naturally to progressive politics, it’s one we need to reaffirm. Poverty isn’t experienced by atomised individuals acting as totally independent economic agents. Poverty is endured by f amilies and to communities – and building relationships and supporting families are central to any sustained assault on poverty.
What does that mean? It means we have to be alive to the impact that the private economy and public policy are having on the quality of family relationships. Isolation and lack of community are vital determinants in persistent child poverty. It means we need to deliver pride and self respect for poor communities, not just jobs and income transfers. For that reason building relationships, being engaged with local institutions, learning to lead and work with others are indispensible aspects of reducing child poverty.
The state and the private sector can create the space and time for people to come together, with policies from flexible working to allow people to have time off, to making the streets safe so that people feel they can attend a public meeting on a dark night in winter. But it also means we need to start celebrating, and value, the people who are taking action and assuming leadership roles in their own communities.
But even the strongest policy consensus won’t get us to what we need. We have to find new ways to give voice to a campaign that makes backsliding, delay, or watering down of the commitment to ending child poverty too politically painful for this Government to contemplate. One of the best things about CPAG is that it has the word “action” in the title, and I know everyone here doesn’t want to wait until we start to see rising child poverty before taking political action. But it also means we need to find new campaigning tools and new language to try and recruit new advocates who haven’t been involved in this cause before.
My party, of course is out of power for at least part of the ten crucial years that, as a country, we have set ourselves to end child poverty. But I want us to be in the heart of the debate, challenging the Government when it gets things very wrong – as I ve been doing on housing benefit – but ready to work to build a new consensus on poverty whenever the opportunity arises. I know that you all will be a leading voice in that debate and I look forward to us campaigning and working together.