This article first appeared on Lib Dem Voice on 1st March.
“A fair, free and open society, in which… no one shall be enslaved by poverty.”
The fundamental basis of our party’s constitution – its very soul – is the elimination of poverty. We may disagree amongst us on how best to achieve this ambitious goal, but there’s little dissent on having it as a goal, particularly when it comes to the blight of children growing up in poverty.
We find ourselves in government with a party that doesn’t share many of our values – rarely is this crystallised as starkly as this week’s battle over child poverty targets.
It appears that some Conservatives – in particular, the Chancellor – refuse to accept the need for clear targets on reducing child poverty. The result? A new strategy to reduce child poverty that contains to targets on reducing child poverty. Really.
I agree with David Laws. Really I do. The Guardian quotes David thus: ‘as chairman of the Lib Dems’ election 2015 manifesto group he wanted to see these targets appear in the party’s manifesto. Getting agreement on the issue ought to be a priority in the next parliament because “this debate is too important to be vetoed by one political party in British politics.”
There is a more nuanced debate to be had on how we measure child poverty, and poverty for all – not least because how we measure it frames how we tackle it. This debate should be informed by the risks associated with changing an internationally-recognised, well-understood single definition (earning below 60% of the median) – risks that the Royal Statistical Society say imperil public trust and trans-national comparison. While these risks are real and should be taken seriously, I understand that the new approach won’t reject household income and replace it with a broader definition, as was originally assumed. Rather, the newer indicators of poverty will be measured and published alongside the 60%-of-median figure – they’ll be additional, rather than instead of, the trusted statistic. Some other countries take a dashboard approach to poverty indicators, which take account of social circumstances and public spending – the new strategy attempts to replicate this.
To me the real risk in the proposed approach of defining child poverty is the conflation of causes and consequences of poverty. We need to debate, as a party, whether we consider social phenomena like broken families, educational underachievement and substance abuse to be drivers of, or a result of, poverty. Of course the relationship is complicated – there’s likely to be a cyclical link between these factors. But whether we see these as risk factors or markers of poverty has a real impact on how we approach so much public policy – decisions on things as disparate as welfare spending, alcohol pricing and housing depend on how we frame the problem of poverty, how much we hold individuals absolutely responsible for their circumstances.
So there are difficult, ethically loaded decisions to be made on how we measure other factors that contribute to poverty. The decision to have a target at all is not – that, is far more an issue of pure political expediency. The Tory cards are on the table, they don’t want to have targets on child poverty they can be held accountable for. We do, we should, and we will.