Dr Spencer Pitfield is the Director of Conservative Trade Unionists.
In David Cameron and Ruth Davidson, today’s Conservative Party has two leaders who care passionately about ending UK poverty. I recently had the privilege of hearing Davidson speak at the third annual UK Poverty Lecture hosted by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and Prospect Magazine in central London.
As leader of the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party, Davidson is working around the clock ahead of the crucial Holyrood elections in May. Scottish Conservatives have, in some opinion polls, been coming in at second place ahead of Labour and her excellent team of candidates are promoting an energetic platform not only for the Union, but also in support of all hardworking families and dealing with UK poverty.
Her speech echoed the statement by the Foundation that “poverty is a cost that the UK cannot afford”. In a recent report, the organisation said that poverty “wastes people’s potential and drains public finances, hampering economic growth. If we don’t act it is likely to increase”.
Davidson has taken seriously the Foundation’s message about poverty and expanded upon it, putting forward a Conservative vision for social justice. Among the many insightful comments that she made – and I recommend that you read her full speech on our Conservative Trade Unionists website – was the idea that ‘we should not stand idly by as we watch failures of both state and market alike affect poverty and gross inequality.’
Fortunately, we are seeing record national employment figures and more people joining the workforce. This goes a long way towards tackling poverty and inequality, but there is still a lot more to do. In the three months to November last year, the national jobless total fell by 99,000 to 1.6 million – an eight-year low. By way of comparison, in my region of Yorkshire, the count fell by only 3,000 to 164,000.
As Davidson will know from her own constituency of Glasgow, we regularly see higher job figures in London and the South East of England than we do in other parts of the UK. And so, critically, we need to ensure that economic growth, which the Conservative Government is helping to create, can be shared across the whole country.
Full employment, however, will never fully address the issue of UK poverty. Sitting as I do at Sheffield’s Magistrates’ Court, I know only too well that there will always be people who need and require the full support and intervention of the state.
David Cameron’s Life Chances speech in January focused on more support for children and families to create a future that is brighter and with less risk of poverty for all. He spoke about what he called a “simple ambition”: “to give every child the chance to dream big dreams, and the tools – the character, the knowledge and the confidence, that will let their potential shine brightly”.
He announced a range of new investments and policies, including extra funding for childcare and relationship support, a new ‘help to save’ scheme so working families can be ready for any future difficulties, and plans to direct £70 million towards careers over the course of this Parliament, primarily through the Careers and Enterprise Company – which will result in a major effort to recruit mentors and role models for teenagers from less fortunate backgrounds.
The Foundation found recently that four in five young people who go from a position of unemployment to low-paid work are still poorly paid ten years later. This should be unacceptable for all Conservatives who want to build a better and fairer society, and such employment ‘blocks’ should be a key policy focus over the years to come.
We need to be ambitious about the goal of ending poverty in the UK – including, crucially, in-work poverty – by drawing upon the important research available and turning it into a substantial and clearly defined policy framework. Such a framework must have the levers to deal with all aspects of UK poverty, which is a highly complicated area of policy delivery.
Davidson declared that “government can be a force for good” while Cameron laid out the vision of a “more social approach” in 21st century politics, saying that “we need to think big, be imaginative not just leaving behind the old thinking but opening ourselves up to the new thinking.”
Our leaders are setting out a bold governing agenda, and this shows that the Conservative Party offers real solutions to the social justice problems of today. Significantly, if we are to succeed we must not lose sight of the fact that economic growth cannot deliver for all people in poverty, and the state will always have to be there to support those in need.
I would argue that we should support those people who cannot get on the ladder of prosperity even more if we can ourselves. The challengeto us all is to keep progressing our Conservative campaign against poverty, creating in the process the positive life chances that the Prime Minister has referred to. We can do this by making sure our politics is focused on supporting the most vulnerable in our society whilst also helping those that can get on to prosper and flourish.