John Glen is the Member of Parliament for Salisbury.
The Welfare Reform and Work Bill, which has its second reading in the House of Commons today, will be a major piece of legislation – the outcomes from the reforms it heralds could provide the defining legacy of this Conservative Government.
It is vital we do not allow the debate to become one shaped by conversations about levels of tax credits: instead what is needed is a wider discussion of how we can identify and address the root causes of child poverty.
For too long, Conservatives have been on the back foot. We must now shape the agenda of how Government should look beyond narrow measures of poverty and deal with the complexity that stifles progress for so many.
In international development, children are not considered to be in poverty simply if their household income is beneath a certain point: measures encompass a wider range of factors, such as access to decent housing, sanitation, food insecurity, health and education.
In order to qualify for debt relief, the IMF and World Bank require developing countries to produce comprehensive Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers, which have to respond specifically to the multidimensional nature of poverty.
It isn’t enough to specify an arbitrary income target and aim to lift people above it.
As early as 2002, the Department for International Development recognised that effective child poverty strategies “strengthen the capacity of families to provide a secure and stable framework for child care and development”. The same should be true in our domestic approach to child poverty.
Yet in this country we measure child poverty as 60 per cent of median income, and the only legal targets we are required to meet have been based on this statistic. The target driven approach of the 2010 Act actively incentivises dealing with poverty simply by paying to raise people above the line.
This was most perversely demonstrated when this arbitrary measurement of income fell by £8 per week in 2012: this apparently lifted 300,000 children out of poverty overnight.
Such measures reward complacent governments who take the easy way out rather than facing up to the complex and multi-dimensional root causes of poverty. It is right that we now challenge this approach.
The Troubled Families programme has worked precisely because it focused on worklessness, truancy and anti-social behaviour together, rather than targeting individual income measures. We should be emboldened by its success, and ensure that the upcoming Children’s Life Chances Strategy does not shy away from politically difficult issues.
This means it must examine indicators like family breakdown, educational failure, intergenerational worklessness, addiction and debt: these all matter to the outcomes for the poorest in society.
The Troubled Families programme was also successful because it did not pursue a ‘one size fits all approach’: intervention was built around individual circumstances and needs. There is much that we can learn from that approach, and a strong case exists for applying it to other public services.
The DWP plans to make £43 million available over the next three years to pilot services which support people with common mental health conditions into enduring work: we should make sure this funding is targeted at ambitious programmes that make the best use of local expertise across the voluntary and public sector.
This is another area where building intervention around individual circumstances can lead to improved outcomes for many more.
As a Conservative, I hold an optimistic and positive view of what can be achieved and believe in the majority of cases, people simply want the state to remove the barriers to let them get on with their lives.
For some, however, there are considerable benefits to well targeted interventions that help move families and individuals beyond patterns of dependency, and allow them to fulfil the potential that they have always had.
Poverty is not simply an economic issue for us: it is also one of social justice. There is a risk that this debate will be dominated by those who will seek to present cuts as the relentless ideological pursuit of a smaller state.
To do so misses the point of the Bill: the recent election and the subsequent Budget set the direction of travel for the next five years. Conservatives want to see a strategic shift towards a higher wage, more productive economy with an upskilled workforce.
The Prime Minister said in 2006 that tax credits “cannot succeed in substantially reducing relative poverty without unaffordable public spending increases”. He was right then, but sadly we could only watch as the tax credit bill ballooned to the point they were reaching nine in ten families in 2010.
Now, we have a chance to redress that balance, and we have to reinforce that this Government challenges the patronising and pessimistic view that many in the Labour Party have of individual potential.
Today’s Bill replaces it with a positive notion of a society where individuals are released from the assumption of dependency on low paid, low skilled, and under-productive state-subsidised work to one which gives the prospect of wage growth based on new skills and the fulfilment of their potential.