Poverty Rebranded

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

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
  • 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

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 .

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,

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


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