A while back I wrote about how conservatives needed to start talking about poverty.
Two days ago an old cinema in Shipley caught fire – it’s now being demolished as an unsafe building. One tweet I saw suggested that it might have started from a tramp lighting a fire to keep warm on a cold, snowy night. It may turn out that there was some other cause but, sadly, this suggestion could very well be true. For whatever reason there are people sleeping rough on even the coldest night – and this is poverty.In rounds terms the UK government spends about £100bn on alleviating poverty (this is just the welfare budget bit of it so the true figure is maybe a bit higher) - there really ought not to be much poverty left if this money was distributed well. The problem is partly that government really isn't very good at running things and that we design general systems lacking the responsiveness and flexibility needed to respond to the reality of poverty. But fixing that won't fix poverty.
Too many of us look at this and throw up our hands in despair. After all we’ve had a welfare system for over 100 years and a welfare state for nearly 70 – and still there are people who end up unable to heat their home, wondering whether they can feed their children and lacking in any hope or aspiration. So when I see people “defending” the welfare state, I want to scream and point to the terrible injustice of poverty.
In one respect us Conservatives have it right - the best way to eliminate poverty is for people to have a job and the opportunity for personal betterment. But, even when we move away from relative measures of poverty, there remains, at any given time, a lot of people who by any measure are in abject poverty. When Bradford Council's corporate scrutiny committee looked at this, my back-of-the-envelope estimations gave a figure of 15,000-20,000 people in the City who are genuinely wanting, really are poor. Stretch this across the nation and we get to a figure of about 2 million or so people who are in poverty.
Blessedly, for many of this 2 million, the situation is temporary, they get the benefits sorted out, maybe pay off some debt or get a job and are able to move to a more stable place, at least for the time being. But this still leaves a lot of people - I don't know how many, suspect no-one knows for sure - who are living in terrible poverty and can't get themselves out of it. And, yes, we do a fine job most of the time helping them, either through the benefits system or through the wonderful thing that is people's charity. The thing is, however, that this isn't getting to the heart of the problem, it's treating the symptoms rather than the cause.
As conservatives, people who believe in the free market society that made most people much richer than past generations, we need to resist the temptation to line up with the progressive left and say that cause is down to the system, that liberal capitalism is somehow the reason for that ex-soldier sleeping rough outside Tower Hill tube station or that single mum crying herself to sleep because she's nothing to feed the kids tomorrow. If there are a million people stuck in terrible poverty, there are an accompanying million reasons for that being so.
It seems to me that our nationalised and centrally-directed welfare system, for all that it works for most of its users, simply cannot give the time and attention to people that would allow plans to get that ex-soldier or that single mum out of their poverty. If we are to redesign a system, it needs to come with space to allow better support for such things as mental health, drug and alcohol dependence, disability and budgeting. And, yes, this means challenging spending reductions in local government and looking at how we can make ideas like the (badly named) troubled families programme work. It also means recognising that providing emergency cash, food and clothing has to be part of a system - things like food banks should be seen as part of society's response not as a reflection of failure.
It also strikes me that we need to see how the creativity of private initiative can be directed to helping these million or so folk stuck in poverty. Big government isn't innovative (probably rightly) but there are a lot of people working in and around government who could be given the opportunity and incentive. I'm struck by the degree to which charities and voluntary groups are ready to take risks, do things a bit differently, in order to help those they were formed to help. How we get more of this should be something exercising the mind of government. David Cameron's 'Big Society' was a good start that was, sadly and wrongly, castigated by people in the voluntary sector suffering from a bad case of 'not invented here syndrome'.
The elimination of poverty is not something that can be achieved by government on its own, least of all by tearing down the system of liberal capitalism most likely to deliver a long term answer. That Cameron observation that "there is such a thing as society, it's just not the same as government" should be our starting point. The task of government is to enable people who want to help to do just that, to remove the controls preventing support. At the same time government needs to start being more trusting of the people who walk in through its doors seeking help.