A Conservative colleague and former adviser to former Social Affairs Secretary Iain Duncan Smith has accused the government of treating the UK’s poverty crisis as “political football” and lacking the will and ambition to tackle the mounting hardship and hardship.
Philippa Stroud, who this week is setting up an independent bipartisan commission aimed at finding practical solutions to poverty, said the pandemic and cost-of-living crisis had shown that long-term policy change was needed to save the lives of millions Changing people struggling with low income.
Despite one in five British citizens living in persistent poverty, the government has failed to put in place a real plan to tackle this and has neglected an increasingly impoverished benefit system, leaving increasing numbers of people unable to to stay afloat financially. “We can’t go on like this,” she added.
Lady Stroud is set to chair a high-level Poverty Strategy Commission that aims to forge a political consensus on how to tackle poverty and what the public should expect from a social security system, avoiding what she sees as a partisan approach that has attempted to do so divide public attitudes towards welfare for political gain.
“The lack of a political imperative has meant that these issues have too often been neglected and governments have reacted reactively or ad hoc. The cost of living crisis means we can no longer afford that luxury. It’s the issue that will define the next elections,” she said.
“We wait until there is a problem, like with free school meals [or with energy prices] and we’re responding to that,” she told the Guardian. “But the reality is that underlying all of this is the fact that poverty in this country is too high and the government has no strategic approach to combating poverty.”
The rising number of workers living below the poverty line undermined the government’s assumption that every job is automatically a way out of poverty, she said, adding: “We need a much more honest conversation about the extent of poverty in the UK – what really drives them and what the solutions actually are.”
The UK has lacked an overarching poverty strategy since the Conservatives dropped Labour’s post-2010 plan to end child poverty. They’ve cut £37 billion from the welfare system in a decade of austerity. The latest figures showed that 13 million people were living in relative poverty in 2020-21, including nearly 4 million children.
After years of growth, poverty rates in the UK fell during the pandemic, not least due to a temporary £20-a-week increase in universal credit benefits. The reversal of this increase last October, coupled with below-inflation pension increases in April, is expected to more than reverse this decline in poverty.
The cost of living crisis has shed new light on poverty and the impact of social cuts. While poverty rates for pensioners have fallen in recent years, groups such as single parents are disproportionately exposed to rising inflation, with an estimated 7 million people living in “financial anxiety” without food or heating.
Commissioners include Tory MP and former Welfare Secretary Stephen Crabb and Labor leader of the Work and Pensions Select Committee Stephen Timms, as well as experts from business, charities and think tanks. Paul Johnson, the distinguished director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, is an adviser to the Commission.
Supporting Stroud’s comments, Crabb said the debate on poverty in the UK has too often been dominated by attempts to exploit gross divisions between “bubblers and aspirants” for political ends. Poverty reduction, he said, shouldn’t be about “how we get votes, it’s something that should challenge our conscience.”
An open letter signed by Commissioners said the poverty rate in Britain has stubbornly remained above 20% and the number of people living in deep poverty has risen, while poverty has fallen for some groups, such as pensioners. “It was symptomatic of an approach that used poverty as a political toy.”
The commission builds on the work of the cross-party Social Metrics Commission and is co-funded by right-wing center Legatum Institute – which is chaired by Lady Stroud – and anti-poverty charity, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.
Stroud’s comments are notable given her role as policy adviser to Duncan Smith between 2010 and 2016, when billions were slashed from the welfare budget and the Department for Works and Pensions oversaw the introduction of policies like the two-child limit and benefit cap, which the have increased poverty.
She has argued that these cuts were imposed by the Treasury as the price of introducing universal credit, despite internal opposition from her and her colleagues – including former Welfare Secretary Lord Freud, who recently called for the “malicious” two-child limit to be scrapped became .
A government spokesman said: “Absolute poverty has fallen by 600,000 people compared to 2019-20 and we know the best way to support people is to help them find work. That’s exactly what we’re focusing on, with an unemployment rate nearing its lowest level since the 1970s and half a million people finding jobs in the last five months.”