Poverty Rebranded

    Neil Bateman is an author, trainer and consultant who
    specialises in welfare rights and social policy
    issues.

    A local authority anti-poverty strategy is a council-wide
    approach which tries to raise awareness of poverty and steer the
    council towards reducing poverty in its community. In the 1990s
    these strategies were widespread – indeed by the time of the 1997
    general election commentators estimated that well over half of all
    local authorities had such a strategy.

    Local authorities are well placed to see the effects of social
    policies. Throughout successive Conservative governments from 1979
    to 1997 there was an unprecedented growth in poverty and inequality
    – unemployment rose from to 1.07 million in May 1979 to more than
    three million by May 1985, remaining well above two million by the
    time Labour came to office in May 1997.

    And of course, with more than 30 “adjustments” – mainly downward –
    to the unemployment count, these figures tell us only part of the
    story. This era also saw the number claiming means-tested benefits
    leap from 566,000 in

    1979 to more than 2.04 million 10 years later as a result of
    frequent cuts in non-means-tested benefits, and the rise in the
    number without work and on low incomes.

    There was also official denial about poverty. Civil servants had to
    avoid all use of the “P” word in their reports, ostensibly because
    government ministers would find this “too philosophical”. Social
    security secretary Peter Lilley even claimed in 1995 that poverty
    had been conquered because most low-income households now owned a
    camera and John Moore, a former secretary of state who was
    responsible for implementing the 1988 social security reforms, went
    as far as to say: “Poverty is a thing of the past.”

    The New Labour years have seen significant falls in some of the
    headline poverty indicators: unemployment at a 30 year low; 1.1
    million fewer children in poverty; and fewer poor pensioners. But
    poverty remains a huge problem. The proportion of children in
    poverty, 23 per cent, is much higher than the (pre May 2004)
    European Union average of 18 per cent. Other poverty and inequality
    indicators point to things still being far worse than they were in
    1979. In addition, the social security safety net has more holes
    than in 1979.

    With one-third of all local authority spending going on those on
    low incomes, local authorities are well placed to address poverty.
    They can:

    • Promote local area regeneration.
    • Create jobs and address low pay.
    • Raise skill and educational attainment levels.
    • Stimulate the provision of child care.
    • Provide welfare rights advice and carry out benefits take-up
      work.
    • Waive or reduce service charges for those on low incomes.
    • Take an intelligent approach to debt collection.

    Such actions were common themes in the anti-poverty strategies
    of the 1990s. In 1999 Tony Blair unexpectedly announced the
    government’s aim of eradicating child poverty by 2020 and much
    government effort has since been directed at this goal.

    Today many local authorities have social inclusion strategies, or
    in Scotland, strategies to “close the opportunity gap”. Some local
    authorities still focus on the “P” word in their planning
    activities and most will be doing things to reduce poverty without
    being explicit about it.

    Others have removed the word from their lexicon. Many plans for
    children’s and older people’s services include elements which could
    be described as focusing on poverty, for example improving
    educational attainment among care leavers, as do many local public
    service agreements. The Local Government Association’s Quids for
    Kids initiative contains many local good practice examples. But it
    seems that, despite all this, anti-poverty strategies, as such, no
    longer exist.

    Part of the problem is language. Jon Harris, strategic director at
    the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, says: “Language
    sometimes gets in the way, but there’s no doubting the Scottish
    executive’s commitment to tackle poverty. But there’s a need to
    join up activity across all agencies.”

    Another problem is the declining number of local authorities in
    England that are Labour controlled – down from their 1994 high
    water mark. That was the era when the John Major government
    embarked on a series of benefit cuts for lone parents and people
    with health problems; council campaigns about poverty were
    therefore compelling and easy.

    A senior figure in local government circles who helped give
    national leadership on anti-poverty issues points out that
    anti-poverty work was partly successful: “Several of our early
    objectives have been achieved – for example, ending the worst
    excesses of charges for care by ending flat rate charges for those
    on low incomes, ensuring benefits advice is provided to charge
    payers, routinely weighting strategic allocation of service
    resources to take account of low incomes and quite a lot of
    mainstreaming of anti-poverty activity. There’s less need for
    research because the data is now so much better, indeed some of the
    statistics today simply didn’t exist 10 years ago. Also, some
    things just go out of fashion.”

    As part of the co-ordination of anti-poverty work, two national
    bodies were set up in the 1990s – the National Local Government
    Forum Against Poverty , which concentrated on campaigning work, and
    the Local Government Anti-Poverty Forum which provided technical
    and policy advice. The former collapsed under scandals involving
    expense fiddles and funds spent on prostitutes (resulting in prison
    terms for those involved), while the latter appears to have
    declined when it was absorbed into the Improvement and Development
    Agency.

    Geoff Fimister, who was closely involved in developing several
    anti-poverty strategies and who now works as a consultant on
    poverty issues, says: “The change of government in 1997 is key. In
    the early days, to some extent, anti-poverty work was seen as
    embarrassing and associated with Old Labour. But some elements have
    been mainstreamed, while others have been renamed. Since the demise
    of the national co-ordinating bodies, there’s a need for research
    to see what’s out there and a need for renewed co-ordination and
    leadership. It would be good if the local authority associations
    could give a lead on this.”

    Jonathan Stearn, director of pressure group End Child Poverty,
    echoes his views: “Local authorities have a key role to play but
    practice and policies are patchy.”

    At a time of comparative prosperity in the 1960s it took the
    “rediscovery of poverty” by the media and social theorists to
    reawaken interest in the subject and to ignite public opinion.
    Today’s poverty lobby may need to find a similar way to bring the
    issue back into the heart of local authority concerns .

    Abstract
    Neil Bateman examines what has happened to local
    authority anti-poverty strategies since 1997, what has replaced
    them and what might be done to reinvigorate local authority
    interest in these strategic approaches to tackling poverty.

    Further Information

    • Child Poverty Accord between the Local Government Association,
      Department for Work and Pensions, the Department for Education and
      Skills, the Treasury and the Inland Revenue, from www.lga.gov.uk
    • S Balloch and colleagues, Poverty and Anti Poverty – the Local
      Government Response, Association of Metropolitan Authorities,
      1990

    Contact the author
    Email: neil@neilbateman.co.uk

     

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