I have recently had cause to re-acquaint myself with the Government’s Child Poverty Strategy and was struck by often the word ‘freedom’ is used. It appears 9 times in total, all in relation to reforms which will ‘strip away’ or ‘lift the burden of’ bureaucracy. The full list of appearances is below:
…radical reform of the skills system based on the Coalition principles of fairness, responsibility and freedom.
They (Work Programme providers) will have the freedom to design and implement innovative services which focus on individuals’ needs.
…giving local authorities the freedom to make better use of social housing through control of their own income, expenditure and planning process.
The White Paper sets out how the Academy programme raises standards, particularly in disadvantaged areas, by giving power and freedom back to head teachers and teachers.
We want teachers to have greater freedom to use their professionalism and expertise in order to help all children progress
the transparency agenda will reinforce these new freedoms, allowing communities to influence and challenge their local services
The new Work Programme will give providers the freedom to tailor help to individuals and in return will pay according to results
The Government is currently reviewing these and other statutory duties to make sure they strike the right balance between giving local authorities the freedom and discretion they need to get things done, whilst protecting the most vulnerable people
Our reforms will strip away bureaucracy and give local partners the freedom to focus on the needs of communities whilst being held accountable for achieving positive outcomes for families
In contrast, other words and phrases that one might expect to feature regularly in a child poverty strategy do not appear nearly as often:
the word ‘rights‘ only appears in the main text of the document four times, and only once in relation to children’s rights.
‘in-work poverty’ only appears twice in the main text, despite over half of the children in poverty living in a household where an adult works.
‘adequate’ and ‘minimum’ do not appear at all in the main body of the text
‘standard of living’ appears twice – in the context of severe poverty: ‘Evidence suggests that there are those with seemingly very low incomes who still have a reasonable standard of living’
So freedom from state bureaucracy obviously plays an important role in the ‘new approach’ to tackling child poverty and the ‘old approach’ is characterised as being over-generous with benefits, leading to ‘entrenched benefit dependency’. However, this focus on freedom for service providers reminded me of a chapter I read in the David Harvey book ‘A brief history of neo-liberalism’ a little while ago. He argues, with the help of Karl Polanyi, that:
Planning and control are being attacked as a denial of freedom. Free enterprise and private ownership are declared to be essentials of freedom. No society built on other foundations is said to deserve to be called free. The freedom that regulation creates is denounced as unfreedom; the justice, liberty and welfare it offers are decried as a camouflage of slavery
He goes on to say that:
the idea of freedom … degenerates into a mere advocacy of free enterprise, which means ‘the fullness of freedom for those whose income, leisure and security need no enhancing and a mere pittance of liberty for the people, who may in vain attempt to make use of their democratic rights to gain shelter from the power of the owners of property’
At a time when non-participation in the labour market brings increased attention from the state through a variety of ‘capability assessments’, ‘work experience’ style programmes and the potential extension of conditionality to those in work, it is, perhaps, a surprising contrast to look at the extent of the freedom from state intervention being proposed for service providers.
***Update*** Adrian Sinfield contacted me today (18/05/2012) to provide me with a quote from an older Conservative MP, Harold Macmillan, who declared in 1938, in The Middle Way, that:
‘Freedom and poverty cannot live together. It is only in so far as poverty is abolished that freedom is increased’ (1938, pp 371-2).
Quite a contrast from the ‘new’ approach.
Many thanks Adrian,