Iain Duncan Smith MP is Work and Pensions Secretary and MP for Chingford and Woodford Green.
I have long believed that any Government serious about promoting a strong society must seek to strengthen and support families. And I am proud that while some politicians shy away from talking about family life, this Government is putting families at the heart of our commitment to tackle poverty.
Strong families are a vitally important in helping to prevent poverty and give children the best start in life, and in his speech yesterday the Prime Minister made clear that we will be doing everything we can to support them. As well as doubling expenditure on relationship support he announced a new commitment to support better parenting, and a refocusing of the Troubled Families programme so that it targets families with young children.
This welcome focus on the family is part of wider moves that this Government is making in terms of how we improve the life chances of the disadvantaged in our society. It is part of a new debate on poverty, based on our aim to improve individual’s lives, instead of focusing on abstract statistics.
In the past, the way politicians have thought about and measured poverty failed to focus government action on tackling the root causes of poverty. For too long, politicians failed to acknowledge that poverty is about much more than a lack of income.
Poverty persists because of family breakdown, educational failure, economic dependency and worklessness, and addiction – things that are not currently captured in the relative low income measure of poverty introduced by the previous Labour Government. In fact in 2007, the Centre for Social Justice’s Breakthrough Britain made the point that many poverty analysts were worried that setting a simplistic poverty threshold had warped government priorities.
I have long shared that concern. While Labour’s approach can be characterised as ‘park and pay’, we want to work towards cure and change – to support people to transform their lives and life chances for the better, not just pay them more benefits. And in a nutshell, that’s the difference between the Consevatives’ view of how to tackle poverty and Labour’s: while we want to focus on life chances they simply obsess about income transfers.
In the past, you were considered to be in poverty if your income was below the ‘relative poverty’ measure which was set at 60 per cent of median income. This was a woefully inadequate measure for a variety of reasons – not least that it told you almost nothing about an individuals’ or a families actual situation, nor whether they had the opportunity or ability to improve it.
A 60 per cent measure tells you how much an individual has on any one day, and that can then be topped up if it’s judged it to be too little, but it tells you nothing about what barriers they may face to improving their own situation – whether that be problem debt, lack of education, or addiction.
But anxious to tackle what they thought was the problem, previous governments set about trying to raise everyone above this threshold, which led to unintended consequences such as poorly targeted spending, pumping money into the welfare system, and an overall focus on inputs rather than outcomes.
As a result, we saw massive rises in welfare spending – an increase of 60 per cent in real terms under the last government. And by 2010, nearly one in five households had no one working. During the last Parliament we began to turn this around, and there are now well over two million more people in work than in 2010.
On top of this there are now around 475,000 fewer children living in households where no one has a job, and the overall number of households where no one was in work fell to the lowest on record.
And for me, one of the most significant figures is the one showing the progress we’ve made in tackling worklessness amongst those living in social housing. This is a group of people that previous governments ignored – often leaving them abandoned on the sidelines while the more advantaged in our society progress. The proportion of workless households in the Social Rented sector stood at a whopping 48.7 per cent in 2010. It is now 39.1 per cent – a record low. And in terms of absolute numbers, it has fallen from 1.66 million in 2010, to 1.38 million – also a record low.
This is really good progress, but we want to build on it – and support more people to get into work, stay in work and to progress. This is the best way to ensure that we help families out of poverty.
But improving an individual’s life chances isn’t just about economics and money. I have long argued that there are five key pathways into poverty that affect children’s life chances: worklessness, educational attainment, drug and alcohol addiction, family breakdown, and problem debt – all themes the Prime Minister spoke about in his speech yesterday.
We have the Welfare and Reform Bill making its way through Parliament at the moment. The Bill will provide a statutory basis for much needed reform to improve children’s life chances.
In particular, the Bill will introduce a new duty to report on worklessness and educational attainment. The worklessness measures will identify the proportion of children living in workless households, and the proportion of children in long-term workless households. The educational attainment measures will focus on GCSE attainment for all pupils and for disadvantaged pupils. Alongside this will be a range of other indicators to measure the progress against the root causes of poverty.
We know that children living in households with unstable relationships, where debt and addiction are a problem, where parents lack employment skills, and where children just aren’t ready to start school don’t have the same chances in life as others. We are currently developing measures to track and tackle these issues.
As a result of these changes, governments will no longer have to focus on just moving families above an arbitrary poverty line. Instead, they will be able to make a meaningful change to children’s lives by extending opportunity for all and building stronger families who can escape the cycle of poverty and improve their lives.
This is all part of the Life Chances strategy that we will be publishing this year – a fundamentally important agenda that I am proud to be delivering.