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Steve Bassam: We as a nation need to recommit to ending poverty

3 min read

We know how to tackle poverty, especially child poverty. But it requires political will and a better informed public debate about its causes and effects, writes Lord Bassam

Labour peers have tabled a debate to focus on the impact of multiple cuts to a wide range of benefits. During the debate, tributes will undoubtedly be paid to Patricia Hollis who recently passed away. Patricia was a big political figure greatly respected for her work championing measures that tackled poverty. She was a first-class DWP Minister and led the opposition on cuts to tax credits.

It was Baroness Hollis who argued rightly that we need to stop looking at the cuts to benefits in isolation but instead look holistically at their impact. Too often, opposition has focused on the singularity of a cut say to child benefit or housing support. Consequently, Labour will insist we look across the range of income support measures which the Tories have systematically reduced over the last eight years. Only then will we have a better picture of how the Government has increased poverty over time.

During Labour’s time in government, it attacked poverty firstly by using tax credits to try and make work pay and increasing the value of key benefits like child benefit. This enabled Labour to take over 1.1 million out of child poverty. This was underpinned by legislation aimed at reducing child poverty with key targets.

Much of these measures have now been reversed. It is estimated that by 2021, 5.1 million children will be in families below the accepted poverty threshold. Why is that?

Most commentators would argue it is because of the way many of the income support cuts have been loaded. The dual reduction in the value of child benefit through freezes in value and the two-child cap will mean that by 2021 the value of the benefit will be 23% lower than in 2010.

Coupled with these cuts have been reductions brought about by the overall benefit cap set at £20k (£23k in London) and the changes in tax credits. These later changes have been particularly damaging because they impact on families where there are ‘just about managing’ parents in work. It is thought that roughly two-thirds of children in poverty are in families where parents are working. The problem for them is the combination of income support cuts linked to pay pegged at national minimum wage levels, insecure work and zero hours contracts.

Since 2010 the Government has taken some £21bn out of income support measures. Current plans are projected to remove a further £15bn worth of support. All of this comes at a cost. The cost is an insecure family life, an increased reliance on food banks, often access only to poorer quality housing and reduced child care support.

It doesn’t have to be this way. We know how to tackle poverty, especially child poverty. During Labour’s time in Government, the UK was the best performing OECD country at taking children out of low-income households and providing good wrap-around child care through Sure Start.

We as a nation need to reinvigorate interest in ending poverty. One way to achieve this is through a better informed public debate that considers that despite being close to full employment, there are people in work who are poor. If we do that then we will at least have gone some way towards Patricia Hollis’s belief that if people understood the arguments about poverty and social justice, then they would want to bring it to an end. That is a legacy worth following and fighting for.

Steve Bassam is a Labour peer

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