Thursday, 27 November 2008

And another more recent one...

"I start by congratulating the Select Committee on producing the report. Although child poverty may be fairly easy to describe in headline terms, the devil is in the detail, and the report gives a comprehensive overview of the different factors that have an impact on child poverty and the various measures that need to be taken to tackle it. Quite often, something looks in theory as though it would alleviate a particular family's poverty, and it is only when we get down to the detail and start making those complex calculations that we realise how it works in practice. It is therefore important that the Committee is giving the matter a great deal of scrutiny and responding to it in such detail.

Such a timely report can help to keep child poverty on the political agenda. We are in a slightly strange situation now. Hon. Members have referred to the disappointing figures that were released recently, but they are now quite significantly out of date. As the Child Poverty Action Group and others have said, we already have measures in place from the 2008 Budget, and some from the 2007 Budget as well, that will help to lift another 500,000 children out of poverty. We should not lose sight of the fact that certain measures have not yet come into effect, but are still moving the Government's trajectory towards meeting the target in the right direction.

I shall focus on one small aspect of the report, because the three Committee members who have spoken have already talked in detail about things such as child care, the take-up of benefits, and “better off in work” calculations. I shall explore the broader issue of how we make the political case for tackling child poverty. That is increasingly important now. Perhaps the public's attitude was more sympathetic when people generally felt quite well off, but when they start to feel the pinch in their own pockets as food and fuel prices rise and they feel that things are not quite as rosy as they were, it is even more difficult to make the case for redistribution from the better-off to the people who need it the most.

I was struck by the reference in the report to evidence that the public tend not to believe that poverty really exists in the UK. That was mentioned a lot when, with the Chairman of the Select Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, North (Mr. Rooney), and other Members of Parliament, I took part in a discussion yesterday with people from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and others. Now, people tend to think of poverty as something that is seen in Darfur—people living on the brink of starvation in desperate circumstances. They quite easily dismiss claims about poverty in the UK with comments such as, “Oh, you can't afford a new pair of trainers.” They think that that is all it is. The case needs to be made.

I was struck by this statement in the report:"“Long-term economic stability in the UK means the public tend to feel there is no excuse for poverty; it is the result of bad choices and wrong priorities, and therefore not a subject for public help.”"

The report also states:"“The public believe that social relations within society are breaking down due to antisocial behaviour; the real problem is seen as 'emotional poverty', not lack of physical or concrete resources.”"

The Committee cites research from 2007 by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and Ipsos MORI to back that up. It is a telling point. To an extent, such attitudes are nothing new. In the past, distinctions have been drawn between the so-called deserving and undeserving poor. The media and certain politicians have focused on attacks on feckless single mothers, workshy scroungers, or benefit fraudsters—often straying into racist territory. We are all familiar with stories—grossly distorted—about immigrants and asylum seekers coming to Britain to take advantage of our generous benefits system.

I do not deny that some people out there play the system. They are in it for what they can get and they do not feel that they have any reciprocal responsibility to society. We know that some people do not want to work. We see that in our constituencies and in the press. However, for every person I see at my surgeries, hear about from other constituents or read about in the local press who might fall into that category, I come across many, many more who are desperate to get themselves out of the situation in which they find themselves. They know how soul destroying, demeaning and exhausting poverty can be and they do not want that for their children. There is an intergenerational cycle whereby children who are brought up in poverty tend to go on to be poor themselves—poverty is passed on from generation to generation. Although some people do not have aspirations for themselves, many more are quite willing to move into work; they just need help and support to do that and the Government policies that can point them in the right direction.

As I said, the research on public attitudes revealed that people believe that poverty is the result of people making the wrong choices and having the wrong attitudes and the wrong priorities—that the problem is emotional poverty. There has been a recent public focus on what, rather than the undeserving poor, could be termed the dysfunctional poor. The focus is not so much on people as economic participants but on people's behaviour. To some extent, the media these days are almost celebrating dysfunctionality in families. I do not want to give yet more publicity to certain television shows, but Members probably know the sort that I mean—the sort of show, for instance, in which someone having a DNA test live on television is thought to be a good way of announcing to the world who a child's parent is. There is something seriously wrong with that.

We see that attitude also in relation to certain celebrities. One young woman, who obviously has serious mental health and drug problems, shares my name. I often walk into the newsagents and see headlines saying “Kerry on the verge of collapse”, “Kerry back in rehab”, “Kerry's drugs hell”, “Kerry not fit to be a mother” and so on. That is presented as entertainment, but for celebrities income is not a problem. At a lower level in the media, however, dysfunctional families are paraded as if they were entertainment.

That may be partly because, as has been said, there has not been so much of a focus lately on economic issues. If people feel relatively well off, they will not be so concerned that their money is being used to support those unemployed people who want to be unemployed. However, there is now more of a pejorative element—it is more a moral judgment about people's other choices rather than specifically about work.

That element is linked in part to the fact that, for laudable reasons, the Government have focused on antisocial behaviour and their Respect agenda. That is entirely laudable and something that should certainly be pursued, but it has moved the debate on a little. Instead of it being about people who live in poverty and deprivation in difficult circumstances, it is now seen as being about families who have drug and drink problems, who may suffer domestic violence, or who are involved in criminal activity or prostitution. That is what people think of when the subject of poor families is raised. The focus is important.

The Government's Families at Risk review is concentrating on those families that have multiple disadvantages, and that is to be welcomed. However, focusing only on those families, and seeing poverty just as something that is associated with that sort of dysfunction, does a grave disservice to those who are on relatively modest incomes and lead relatively modest lives but who are struggling to keep above the breadline.

We know that 50 per cent. of children who live in poverty have one or more parents in work and that they have relatively normal lifestyles. It is about making work pay, being able to afford transport, being able to meet those unexpected costs, such as when the fridge stops working, or when the car that one needs to get to work breaks down. Rises in the price of fuel and food will have a disproportionate impact on the poor.

I shall not go back into the detail of what has already been said. I think that the Government are on the right lines with the packages that they are trying to deliver to people to make them better off in work. I am more concerned about what could be the subjective judgment on whether a person is better off in work. We have heard that the calculations are complex. However, we need to deal with the sort of situation described by my hon. Friend the Member for Leyton and Wanstead (Harry Cohen), of someone having to prove that child care is not available.

I am thinking of a particular scenario. In Bristol, public transport is pretty appalling. Someone who has a part-time job, perhaps in the new retail development that is soon to open in Bristol city centre, will have to fit that job around getting one child to a child minder and getting the other child to school and then getting the bus into work, and after work having to be at the school gates in time to pick up one kid and then to the child minder to pick up the other one. If the buses are persistently late or do not turn up at all, that element can throw the whole arrangement out. On paper, the authorities can say, “We've done the sums. You can afford the child care with the help of child care tax credits. You can afford the bus fares and this and that.” But if the bus does not turn up and the bus company does not admit that the buses are running late, which happens, the whole thing goes out of the window.

We have heard figures on how many lone parents work—I believe that it is about 30 per cent.—but I wonder how many of them are in longer-term jobs. The lone parents that I know tend to work for three months or six months, but find it too much of a struggle and go back on benefit; a few months later, they are struggling on benefits, and they decide to try another option. They have a succession of low-paid, casual and temporary jobs, and it is difficult for them to sustain the kind of job that would lead a career or to them acquiring more skills."


Northern Lights said...

Old Holborn must be devastated - last night he thought he had quite a scoop. Bless.

Kerry said...

And if people can restrain their excitement for just a little longer, I promise to use the 'unemployable' word in the Queen's speech debate next week. Or it might be the week after - depends which subject falls on which day.

Anonymous said...

It seems to take you an awful long time to make the simple point that it's more difficult for poor people to get to work.

But that's by-the-by. How do you reconcile:

"In the past, distinctions have been drawn between the so-called deserving and undeserving poor. The media and certain politicians have focused on attacks on feckless single mothers, workshy scroungers, or benefit fraudsters"


"The problem is, that some of these people are unemployable - not just because of lack of qualifications, but more because of lack of social skills or any awareness of what is right or proper behaviour."

You seem to be making just the same distinctions that the media and certain politicians have focussed on in the past.

Old Holborn said...


" I promise to use the 'unemployable' word in the Queen's speech debate next week. Or it might be the week after - depends which subject falls on which day."

Don't worry, it's on your CV.

Now, the question is, as a member of the Fabians, have been "trained" by Common Purpose?

Do you want to answer here or shall I put in a Freedom of Information request to find out how much Bristol has spent with this "charity"?

Steven_L said...

There's also the issue of people with different worldviews and moral than your average Brit.

One of my flatmates, foriegn national, nice enough chap and wouldn't hurt a fly claims benefit and has no intention of working.

He was just explaining to me in the kitchen before about how the Somalian pirates were perfectly justified to go around stealing peoples ships and commodities, because other countries had stolen all theirs.

He had no answer when I pointed out that the Saudis had not stolen the oil they pumped out of Saudi soil. However that won't change his attitude to life.

It's not just an attitude that is common amongst foreign nationals living here, a lot of the white criminal classes also see themselves as 'better' than the establishment and the middle classes.

They spew twisted logic and harbour a deep resentment towards civilisation. They have convinced themselves that by refusing to take part (and perhaps by making a bit on the side through theft, fraud or drug dealing) they are better than the rest of us.

I can't see the governments new policies changing that either. Many know how to play the system and act 'unemployable'.

I still advocate the use of volunteer lay panels to determine why some people are unable to find work, with the power to attach conditions to benefits and remove them if they are not met.

Northern Lights said...

OH - would that FoI request be one of the 26,000 new pieces of legislation?

Old Holborn said...

I think it's much more interesting that I am going to have to use the law to ask an elected MP how she spent my money because she refuses to answer.

Don't you NL?