Pay out billions of pounds in benefits (sorry, tax credits). Ensure that this torrent of money floats enough recipients just above the poverty line, defined as a percentage of median income, for you to be able to proclaim that you are “lifting people out of poverty”. And – hey presto! – you are solving the problem. But beware of economic growth. For if it lifts median income, this risks increasing the proportion of people who fall below the required percentage. No, the least risky way of reducing poverty is to try to engineer a recession – or, better still, a slump in which median incomes actually fall. In short, the best solution to poverty is to make more people poor.
Such is the demented logic of the Government’s child poverty targets, as championed by Gordon Brown under the last Labour Government. Brown has a brilliant future ahead of him “reading out a list of figures which [have] something to do with the production of pig iron“. By contrast, Iain Duncan Smith has long wanted a better deal for the deprived – one which tackles today’s five “giant evils”. Beveridge’s originals were want, disease, ignorance, squalor and idleness. The Work and Pensions Secretary’s are failing schools, crime, sub-standard healthcare, problem debt, and drug and alcohol dependency: a list drawn up by the Centre for Social Justice.
Now he has seized his moment. Yesterday, Duncan Smith announced that while Government will continue to publish the median income poverty figures, the pig iron targets are to go. But there will be a new statutory duty on his department to report on measures of worklessness and educational attainment, which will include the proportion of children living in workless households, and GCSE attainment for disadvantaged pupils. Other measures are under development to probe family breakdown, problem debt, and drug and alcohol dependency. This shift marks a win for the CSJ, which the Work and Pensions Secretary set up, and a loss for the Redistribution Blob.
The most original response to the announcement came from Alan Milburn, the former Labour Cabinet Minister who now chairs the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission. He wants targets – but disagrees with the blob about what they should be, wanting a “more rounded” way of assessing poverty. But “the key issue is less how child poverty is measured and more how it is tackled,” he said. Amen to that. Milburn wants “a focus on improving life chances”. Duncan Smith agrees. So does ConservativeHome. I remember getting a section on the subject inserted into a Work and Pensions Committee Report on child poverty during my time in the Commons.
But the Work and Pensions Secretary’s announcement didn’t just mark a victory over Brownism. It also signified progress in his struggle with the Treasury, which has long been sceptical about new ways of assessing poverty. It has a point. There is no value in measures that are not robust, and that none were announced in relation to drug and alcohol dependency, problem debt and family breakdown shows that Duncan Smith has not yet won it over completely. But on jobs and education he has made more progress, and there is agreement across this new Conservative Government that what matters most is outcomes and not figures.
There is a deeper significance to yesterday’s news. It represents a win not only over Labour but for real Tory modernisation over the faux version. In his early years as Conservative leader, David Cameron talked up tackling relative poverty as a way of knocking down the Party’s image legacy. He said that it mattered. Margaret Thatcher, famously, said it didn’t. She was right to argue that when its politicians strive for equality of outcome a country goes to hell in a handcart (though it would be wrong to claim that unjust outcomes don’t matter – that crony capitalists who enjoy markets rigged in their favour, say, or trade unions that are protected by legal privileges should be left to flourish).
But the big point here is that substance matters more than image. Soho modernisation, as Tim Montgomerie once described it, was preoccupied by how the Conservatives looked, which was why early Cameron backed Labour’s child poverty targets. Easterhouse modernisation, by contrast, was concerned with what the Conservatives should do – hence Duncan Smith’s visits to that deprived part of Glasgow in opposition and his immersion in the problem of poverty. Later Cameron is wiser than the early version. Or perhaps he has just been biding his time: after all, he appointed the Work and Pensions to his post in the first place.
Now there is more to do. In a recent series on this site, David Burrowes, Samantha Callan, Graham Allen, Christian Guy and I set out ways of creating fairer life chances by strengthening families. Oliver Letwin is mulling “a suite of family policies”. Duncan Smith and his department, which oversees the “family test for policy”, should be put in charge – for if are no clear lines of responsibility there will be less progress than there should be. For example, the Prime Minister recently signalled support for family hubs, and it will be vital to get them right. Down with Big Brother Brown. And up with Winston Smith – sorry, Duncan Smith – who should now be empowered to carry on where he left off yesterday.