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By Tim Montgomerie
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Nick Pickles of Big Brother Watch wonders if Theresa May is burying bad news today by publishing its thinking on increased internet surveillance on the day that the Prime Minister is appearing before Lord Leveson. Nick doesn't like what the Home Secretary is proposing.

IDS CI

The same cannot be said, however, about Iain Duncan Smith's plan to change the definition of poverty.

This is a tanks-on-Labour's-lawn moment.

It's a full-throated attack on Labour's claim to own the moral high ground.

It's a full-scale questioning of Labour's belief that only it knows how to lead the war on poverty.

So, what's IDS doing?

The Work and Pensions Secretary wants to change the way we measure poverty. Labour has measured poverty in purely income terms. In office, Blair and Brown devised a measure of poverty that is all about materialism and a party of a big welfare state will always be more likely to meet it.


Mr Duncan Smith thinks other criteria should move centre stage. Drug addiction, for example, plus family structure and a household's exposure to the culture of work should all become part of the equation. This has been a long-held interest of IDS. Ten years ago, in a speech at Toynbee Hall – a place long associated with Lord Beveridge – he identified child poverty as one of the five giant social challenges of our age but he refused to accept Tony Blair's definition of it:

"Thankfully, most children growing up in today's Britain do not experience the material poverty of Beveridge's time. But too many are starved of basic love and security. When I visited Easterhouse in Glasgow earlier this year I learnt about two young emaciated boys whose parents were stolen from them, night after night, by their drug habit. These parents are in no state to provide their children with breakfast or to get them to school on time.

Too many other children never see their fathers. Some fear the men who live with their mothers. Some are not missed when they return late from school. Many of today's children have more material possessions than the post-war generation could even dream of. Whilst some are still in material need there is a deeper poverty. 

Times may have changed but children's fundamental needs have not. Children are essentially the same at every time and in every place. Deeper than their material needs is a hunger for identity and security. To be part of a loving home where they can become more than they could ever be on their own. The state cannot provide such a home. Prisons are full of children who have been in long-term local authority care. Tony Blair announced his child poverty strategy in this very hall three years ago. But it won't work because it is one-dimensional. His measure of child poverty is solely financial. It ignores the cycle of failing schools, drugs and relationship breakdown that fuels the deepest kind of child poverty."

Read the full speech.

Iain Duncan Smith's Centre for Social Justice has been pressing for new, broader measures of poverty for some time. ConHome columnist Jill Kirby backs the CSJ's judgment. She has noted that "the legislative goal of bringing families with children above 60% of median household income [Labour's crude goal] can be achieved by statistical changes which do nothing to improve the lives of the children involved". Although still defensive of the existing measurement regime the Left are beginning to shift position. The IPPR's Nick Pearce, for example, has acknowledged the existing policy focus has to evolve. He wants more focus on childcare and the under fives. Back on the centre right, Policy Exchange's Neil O'Brien lists some of the reasons why evolution is not enough and why the existing targeting system needs a complete overhaul:

  • "While giving people more cash benefits counts towards the current poverty target, giving children a better education doesn't.
  • Likewise, increasing the number of people in work does surprisingly little to reduce poverty, because it pushes up the median income…
  • If the government gives benefits to people who don't work, that counts as less poverty. But if it spends more on providing childcare for people who work on low incomes, that doesn't.
  • Moving people on housing benefit from expensive private rented accommodation into a cheaper social housing makes poverty go up (because they need less in cash benefits).
  • Government action to sort out the care system, or abusive parents, or drug and alcohol addiction – or any other causes of poverty – will not really show up in the current target in the near term."

In wanting to change the measure of poverty IDS, the CSJ, Jill Kirby, Neil O'Brien etc etc aren't tinkering at the edges of some obscure statistical issue. They are invading intellectual territory of the utmost importance. They are saying that the war on poverty can't be won by a bigger and bigger welfare state. They are saying – among other things – that poverty has to be fought by early intervention, drug rehabilitation, support for the two parent family and a recognition of the superiority of paid work over benefit dependence. They aren't just trying to change the terms of the poverty debate but the whole terms of political debate. Labour present themselves as the nice party because they are the high-spending party. But what if the nice party isn't the party that is always ready to increase benefits but is the party that strengthens the family, improves education and cuts unemployment? Politics changes when the poverty debate changes. When it changes from poverty spending to social mobility. Today's IDS announcement might be buried by Leveson but Conservatives need to move it centre stage.

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