For those in poverty nothing has changed in 20 years – Boris Johnson must act
Conservative Peer Baroness Stroud writes that Boris Johnson knows the political establishment must to act to restore unity and fairness in the UK.
As Boris Johnson gave his first speech on the steps of Number 10 there was one recurring phrase of his speech that struck me: “We will level up”. He has inherited a deeply uneven and divided Britain, where two halves of the same country see and experience life very differently – where one half feels there is opportunity ahead of them and the other half feels left behind. The real challenge lying ahead of the new Prime Minister, as well as getting a Brexit deal over the line, is to heal the UK’s national divisions.
A new report published by the Social Metrics Commission, which I chair, outlines the size, scale and scope of the challenge facing Boris. The latest figures show that 14.3 million people are struggling to make ends meet – this is just over one fifth of the UK’s population. What is even more challenging is that 7 million of these people have been struggling persistently for the last few years and 4.5 million are in deep poverty.
Of all people, Boris knows that the political establishment needs to act to restore the unity and fairness that many think we have lost. We must understand how hard families are working to make ends meet, how they long for stability, and how frustrating it is for a young person to work for years and not be able to afford a home of their own. We must recognise that many will hear his call to “level up” and ask themselves how that can happen when, as the report shows, nothing has really changed over the last 20 years for those who are in poverty.
But we are the fifth richest nation in the world and our prosperity can be converted into better outcomes for all of us. We should not tolerate the extreme poverty we see in the UK and if the Prime Minister is serious about levelling up he must tackle three pressing social issues.
First is wages. It now takes two full time wages to ensure a family is not in poverty. The poverty rate for people living in families where all adults work full time is just 10%, compared to 58% where all adults work part time and 70% in workless families. We must ensure that all work pays a proper living wage for families.
Second is health. Almost half (48%) of all families living in poverty have a disabled adult or child living in the home. Being disabled reduces your ability to work full time, with unemployment at twice the national average for those with a disability. More support is needed to help disabled people into work and at work - this would be a real levelling up.
Third is the 7 million people who live in persistent poverty. Just under half (49%) of those in poverty now have also been in poverty for at least two of the previous three years. This includes 2.3 million children, 1.2 million people living in lone-parent families, and 1.8 million of those living in workless households. The impact that struggling long term has on people is huge and attritional.
A fairer and kinder country will make us all feel proud. There is a huge hunger in the country for a genuine “levelling up”. Our new Prime Minister has a massive opportunity to reunite and rebuild our nation. If he were to achieve this – that would be a true legacy.
Baroness Philippa Stroud is a Conservative Peer and Chair of the Social Metrics Commission.