Monthly Archives: March 2013

The Impoverishment of the UK


The Poverty and Social Exclusion Team have just published their first report ‘The Impoverishment of the UK’ which documents the deprivation suffered by a growing number of people living below what the public agrees is a minimum standard of living. It is the result of the largest ever study of poverty conducted in the UK, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and building on surveys completed in 1983, 1990, 1999 and 2002/03. The team involved comes from five different universities across the UK and is full of internationally renowned experts on poverty, deprivation and social exclusion. In short, its findings, one might hope, should carry some weight.

The first thing to note is the title of the report – the ‘impoverishment’ of the UK. There is nothing natural or organic or inevitable about poverty. Nor is it an accident, as Nelson Mandela pointed out. It is man-made and as the title points out, the UK – or at least a large proportion of it – has been made poor. The UK is, of course, a phenomenally rich country, but it is a rich country with a shockingly high number of poor people in it. Certain politicians and newspapers try to argue that it is poor people themselves who are the architects of their own poverty through their ‘addictive behaviour’, their ‘bad cultures’, their sexual promiscuity or their ‘something for nothing’ attitude. However, as Peter Townsend, one of the original members of the PSE team before his death in 2009, points out, we should ignore this view and take greater interest in the part played by ‘the state, industry and the wealthy classes in ‘manufacturing’ poverty in the first place’. In a passage particularly relevant to the living standards approach of the PSE team, he goes on to say:

‘we have to look at the influences exerted by the rich in defining and controlling the conditions, and setting the fashions, which are continually redefining and reconstituting the structures of need which citizens experience in their everyday lives’ (‘The pursuit of equality’ 1983, Poverty, pp11-15)

The report contains some truly shocking facts and findings – around 2.5 million children live in homes that are damp, roughly 14 million people cannot afford one or more essential goods, about 5.5 million adults go without essential clothing. However, one of the most surprising – and potentially worrying – trends is the increase in the levels of social deprivation. The report highlights that the rhetoric of ‘austerity’ is beginning to have an impact on social activities and networks, which are being regarded as ‘luxuries’ or ‘non-essentials’ by growing numbers of people. So, for the first time, and bucking the trend in surveys going back over the past 30 years, being able to give presents to family and friends once a year was not considered to be a necessity by the majority of people. Similarly, having friends around for a meal or drink once a month or children’s friends visit for tea or a snack once a fortnight were no longer seen as necessities by the majority of people. At a time when we’re being told by politicians that we’re all in it together and ‘The Big Society’ (remember that?) was lauded as the answer to a shrinking state, the result of political language and decision making is that we are actually becoming increasingly individualised, struggling to construct and maintain our own lives and with few resources spare to fulfil any social roles or obligations. Not only has the UK suffered an economic recession, but we appear to be going through a social recession as well. Perhaps, as the research suggests, we might be reaching a point where there genuinely is ‘no such thing as society: there are individual men and women, and there are families’. However, Margaret Thatcher went to on to say that ‘people must look to themselves first. It’s our duty to look after ourselves and then to look after our neighbour’ and on, this, I would agree, especially at the current time, where, as the conclusion of the report points out ‘the impacts of the current government austerity measures are set to hit hard those whose standard of living is already well below that seen by a majority to be minimal’ (my emphasis).

The word crisis is much used at the moment, by politicians and by media commentators. Whenever I hear it, I am reminded of a quote from Milton Friedman, one of the architects of neo-liberalism, and who would probably largely agree with the political and economic decision making of the Coalition Government:

“Only a crisis – actual or perceived – produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes the politically inevitable.”

Whilst there may be no Plan B, that doesn’t mean there aren’t any alternatives

The Tonight programme on ITV will provide the first look at the results of the Poverty and Social Exclusion Survey 2012 tonight at 7:30pm


‘Breadline Britain’


Tomorrow evening, Thursday 28th March, at 7:30pm, the Tonight programme on ITV will provide the first look at the results of the Poverty and Social Exclusion Survey 2012 – the largest survey of poverty ever conducted in the UK, led by University of Bristol and involving academics from five other universities across the U.K.

The research team hope it will be a strong, sympathetic portrayal of life on a low income in the UK today. They also hope it will challenge some of the myths put around by the Government and much of the media about recipients of welfare benefits. The TV listings suggest that a focus of the programme is likely to be the circumstances of the working poor – those families who are in employment but are living in shocking conditions and feel socially excluded.

A short summary report will be available from the PSE website tomorrow evening from 6pm: There are lots of excellent resources and reports on the website and you can sign up for their e-newsletter here

You can follow the PSE Team on Twitter at @PSE2010 and you can also follow the Tonight programme here @ITVTonight.

Please share this information with colleagues, friends and family. It will hopefully be an excellent opportunity to provide a counter explanation to some of the rhetoric that we hear from some politicians about the reasons why people live in poverty in the UK today.

Are child-friendly city approaches being used to push out poor families?

We saw this very interesting post on ‘child friendly’ cities on the ‘Re-thinking Childhood’ blog yesterday and it’s author, Tim Gill, has kindly given us permission to re-blog it. The post looks at how the theory of child-friendly cities, which is linked to children’s rights, has the potential to go astray when picked up by policy makers and practitioners with perhaps unitended consequences for poorer families. Readers may be interested as there is a strong case to be made for attempting to tackle poverty using a children’s rights perspective.

Rethinking Childhood

Rotterdam child-friendly city report coverRotterdam is one the few big cities that has taken seriously the goal of becoming more child-friendly. Its ambitious planning policies have been debated in the National Assembly for Wales (see this web page and the links from it for some English-language material). Its public space improvement projects have been lauded at international conferences (indeed in 2008 it hosted Child in the City, a leading global cross-disciplinary event). What is more, unlike some other Child-Friendly City initiatives, it focuses on hard outcomes that make a real difference in children’s lives – better parks, improved walking and cycling networks, wider pavements – and not just on participation processes that, however well-intentioned, may end up being idle wheels. I have visited Rotterdam and seen the impressive results at first-hand, and have promoted the city’s work in presentations. Yet according to one scholar, the city’s progressive stance hides a more sinister goal:…

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“The first line of defence…..”

“Local government (is) in essence the first line of defence thrown up by the community against our common enemies – poverty, sickness, ignorance, isolation, mental derangement and social maladjustment”

I sometimes use the above quote from Winifred Holtby in presentations to local authorities. One local authority director appreciated the quote but stated that, at the present time, it felt like they were fighting with one arm tied behind their back. He obviously wasn’t feeling the ‘freedoms’ that central government have promised to local authorities in the name of localism and de-centralisation.

Last week, we saw evidence of what this ‘first line of defence’ could look like in the region when the Leader of Darlington Borough Council, Bill Dixon, declared that there would be no evictions in Darlington as a result of the bedroom tax’ and he warned that the tax – or spare room subsidy – was ‘in danger of destroying families’. Other local authorities across the country, including Islington and Brighton and Hove have made similar commitments and a campaign group called No Bedroom Tax NE are calling for other local authorities in the region to make similar pledges.

This may appear to be a political (or moral?) position but one could also mount a fairly strong case for adopting this position on financial grounds as well. Evicting people for arrears, especially families, is rarely a progressive or helpful stage in their lives, it isn’t cheap and it can be a fairly lengthy process, with few benefits for anyone. If the tenants evicted are made homeless, the local authority still has certain responsibilities and (re)housing people in temporary accommodation is a lot more expensive each week than the cost of an unpaid ‘spare room subsidy’. Pledging not to evict people because of arrears relating to the ‘bedroom tax’ could even be construed as an ‘efficiency saving’…..



“People where I live want to work….”

A couple of weeks ago we highlighted the discussions that had taken place in the House of Lords concerning the benefits up-rating bill and the strength of feeling around it. Yesterday, in discussions about the Jobseekers (Back to work schemes) Bill – more commonly understood as being about the ‘Poundland case’ – it was the turn of the MPs. The discussion based around the government’s proposal to introduce emergency legislation which would mean that they would not have to re-pay £130,000,000 that had been withheld  from people whose benefits had been sanctioned illegally.

Two of the strongest interventions came from MPs from the North East – Ian Lavery of Wansbeck and Grahame Morris from Easington. Below are some of the comments that they made in opposing the bill, which went against the wishes and official position of the Labour leadership. Politicians often get a hard time in our country at the present time and are often accused of being ‘out of touch’ with what is happening in ‘real life’. The comments below suggest that this might well be an unfair accusation in some cases. I appreciate that I could be accused of regional – or indeed political – bias in highlighting these contributions to the debate. I fully accept the regional bias charge and would also remind readers that the official Labour position was to abstain from the bill. (For info, 6 North East MPs voted against the bill – the two below, Ian Mearns, Dave Anderson, Mary Glindon & Nick Brown, three voted for the Bill – Guy Opperman, James Wharton and Ian Swales – but I couldn’t find contributions form them. The rest didn’t vote, from what I can gather). However, in order to redress the potential political bias somewhat, I have given the final word to Iain Duncan Smith, and have emphasised some of his comments  as they may be of particular interest….

Ian Lavery

The Bill is being introduced to save the taxpayer up to £130 million, yet it deprives the most vulnerable people who have been on workfare and are looking to better themselves in employment. It has been introduced to deny £130 million compensation to 300,000 people who would like decent employment with decent wages, terms and conditions. The Government have introduced emergency legislation to prevent those people from getting only what the Court of Appeal says they deserve. That is an absolute outrage.

I am certain that the 300,000 people the Court says have a claim because of the illegal actions of the Minister’s Department should receive it—there is no doubt about it. The Bill is being introduced by the DWP and the Government to deprive many hard-working people, and many people who want to be hard-working, of any finance whatever. Is that in the best interests of the economy? It is an absolute disgrace. Those people will spend money in the economy. They might get £50, £100 or £72 a week, but they will spend it, because it is the only money they have. The Minister should not seek to deprive those people and leave them with no finances whatever.

The Bill turns my stomach. The impact assessment states: “A retrospective transfer of public money to this group of claimants would represent poor value to the taxpayer”.

What a disgrace to say such a thing in Government documents with reference to the people I have mentioned 10, 15 or 20 times previously. That will not give them self-esteem. They are doing their very best.

Members of Parliament discuss with constituents, and often people away from the constituency, the merits and otherwise of policies. I often meet people with a very different view from the people the hon. Gentleman has met. That is not to say that that has not been said, but the people I meet want decent jobs. They want the opportunity to get up in the morning and  go to work for a decent wage. They would accept the minimum wage even though, at this point in time, it is not high enough. Where I live, 25 people are after every single job in the jobcentre. That means that 24 are not getting employment for every single opportunity. People want to work for the best intentions and the right reasons. They want self-esteem and finances. People where I live want to work—I am sure that extends throughout the country.

Saying that paying claimants the money that the Court says they should be paid—the result of the ruling means that the £130 million can be paid—does not represent good value for the taxpayer is an absolute disgrace. It is not the type of language we would expect from any Government. It is not right to talk about people as, “This group of claimants.” They are ordinary people with feelings, and many of them want to get on in life.

The impact assessment states: “If the Department cannot make these retrospective changes, then further reductions in benefits might be required in order to find the money to repay the sanctions.”

That is blackmail of the highest order—I make no apology for the strength of my feeling on that. If people are due finances, they should get them, particularly following a court ruling, but the Government are saying, “If we pay these people, we might have to cut benefits for other people as a result because that is where we have to find the money.” That is emotional blackmail. It is totally and utterly bang out of order. They are trying to set people who are looking for work and on benefits against each other. That is absolutely unacceptable.

Some 300,000 people will be denied their legal rights if the Bill is passed. This is just another ideological attack on the unemployed and the less well-off, despite a High Court judgment. Why does the Minister not just accept the court of law? Give these people what they are entitled to. It is the Minister’s mess. Why should they suffer?

Grahame Morris

Members on both sides of the House by saying that, if the funds are not recovered from those who were incorrectly sanctioned, they will have to be recovered from elsewhere in the welfare budget. That is outrageous blackmail; I am sorry if that is not parliamentary language, but I find that deeply offensive. It goes against every grain of fairness in Members on both sides of the House. The view I am expressing is the view that has been unanimously expressed to me. I have received numerous e-mails and messages from my constituents over the past 48 hours, all of them asking me to vote against this Bill as it is unfair and unjust.

The Government, and especially Government Back Benchers, have characterised jobseekers who have been sanctioned as workshy and feckless—the sentiment expressed was “Are you really suggesting these people shouldn’t be sanctioned?” Let us have a look at the Work programme, however. It has gone from chaos to farce. We talk about “workshy”, but what about wage-shy employers who exploit the unemployed, with the connivance, approval and funding of the Government?

I oppose the concept of two nations, as does my party, but what will the consequences of these measures be? The Government are creating two nations. They are seeking to penalise and punish the poor for the mistakes of the rich and powerful, in part of a continuing series of policies that are badged as “austerity”. Those policies are pushing the poorest in society further into poverty.

We need to look at the situation we are in now. This is the wrong thing to do: it is unjust and unfair to give millionaires a £2,000 a week tax cut, at the same time as the right hon. Gentleman’s Government propose to deprive some of the poorest people, who have been illegally sanctioned, of large chunks of their income. It is outrageous, and it is rank hypocrisy for anyone to talk about rights with the emphasis on responsibility when it comes to workfare. If they are willing to undermine the judiciary and the rule of law, and vote for retrospective legislation to cover up the mistakes and failings of the Minister, who is asking that we legislate to place him above the law, that is a dangerous precedent to establish.

I cannot, in all conscience, support this desperate Bill, put forward by a desperate Government who have broken their own laws and now wish to forgo their legal obligations and withhold social security payments of £130 million to some of the poorest people in the country. Why do we not apply that method across the board? If the national emergency is such that it is right to deny access to social security to those who are entitled to it in order to safeguard the national economy, why do we not chase the tax exiles—those powerful individuals who own newspapers and luxury hotels, who pay no corporation tax and who have laid siege to a small Channel Island?

We are in the sorry situation of the Minister blackmailing hon. Members by threatening a collective punishment for all those in receipt of social security and welfare benefits if these changes do not go through, because the Department might have to find the money through further reductions elsewhere in its budget. I thought that it was the Secretary of State for Education and his advisers who were the bullies. It is now obvious that the Department for Work and Pensions has decided to sink to those standards by threatening Members of the House in this way, which is below what we would expect of a responsible Government and a responsible Minister.

 I did not come into Parliament to penalise and punish the vulnerable and the poor for the mistakes of the Government. The Department for Work and Pensions seems to be in a state of chaos. It is trying to save money by issuing unlawful sanctions for a Work programme that is not fit for purpose. It is making arbitrary cuts to disability living allowance and employment and support allowance, and is seeking to reduce the case load by 20%. Through the bedroom tax, it is cutting the incomes of disabled people and families with children. The welfare state under this coalition Government in 2013 is failing at every turn.

What we are seeing today is an abuse of power. This is an appalling Bill. I urge the Minister to take responsibility for his actions, even at this late stage, to put a stop to the Bill and to pay those who were unlawfully sanctioned because of his failings. I will vote against the Bill and I urge other hon. Members to do the same.

Iain Duncan Smith

I am listening carefully to what my right hon. Friend has to say. As the Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Fareham (Mr Hoban), has made clear and my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State will make clear, all of these things are kept constantly under review. We want to improve them and that is what jobcentre staff do. They are brilliant at that, by the way, and they get better and better. My point on mandatory work activity is that it is not just work experience. It is also about changing culture: finding out whether someone is working and not declaring it; and getting people used to the idea of getting out of bed in the morning and attending somewhere where they do what they have been asked to do, because they have so got out of the habit of doing that, that even attending an interview has become a problem for them. This is not just about training; it is about getting people culturally back in line so that they can then be dealt with by advisers.

Remediating child poverty via preschool: exploring practitioners’ perspectives in England

An interesting article exploring the perspectives of pre-school practitioners in the North East to child poverty has just been published in the International Journal of Early Years Education. The author, Donald Simpson, has kindly provided a link for readers of this blog who do not have access to academic publishing. There are 50 free copies of the article here * for those of you who do not have academic sign-ins and for those of you that do, you can access the article in the usual way here

The abstract of the article is below

Within developed countries child poverty is a social problem with significant negative effects. With a backdrop of austerity, the UK’s first child poverty strategy was released in 2011. Pervaded by neo-liberal ideology this strategy identifies preschool services as key to remediating the negative effects of child poverty on children and families as a means to ‘unlock social mobility’. Drawing on interviews with preschool practitioners working in the poorest region of England, this article provides a rare, close-up insight into how they have responded to assumptions about their role within the policy discussions and debates about child poverty. Findings reveal how those interviewed have internalised the UK Coalition government’s discursive formation of child poverty and social justice. Their narratives also indicate how, alongside the child poverty strategy, ‘policy technology’ accompanying the emergence of related reforms to the preschool sector in England and financial cuts are regulative and restrictive to practitioners’ thinking and actions. Although only small scale, this research identifies challenges which will potentially prevent practitioners from creating the conditions necessary to address the effects of child poverty and ensure the Coalition government’s vision of social justice in England.

The conclusions note that:

the findings challenge contemporary policy thinking about the alleviation of child poverty and the promotion of social justice via preschool practitioners. Most practitioners interviewed internalised and repeated the ideological position of the government on child poverty pointing to the negative subjectivities and skills of poor parents as its cause. Poverty was viewed as ‘normal’ when parents lacked aspiration and motivation. Consequently, these practitioners felt that working with such parents should be a priority focus of early intervention measures to address negative aspirations and motivations of parents. Moreover, practitioners spoke of a continuing disconnection between themselves and many poor parents.

These findings mirror the findings from the work we did exploring the priorities identified by North East local authorities in their Child Poverty Strategies. Many of these documents highlighted that tackling ‘cultures of worklessness’ and ‘raising aspirations’ were a priority and it is little wonder, therefore, that practitioners within these same authorities feel ‘disconnected’ from people on low-incomes. It would appear that, in some cases, parents who are poor have been quite successfully ‘othered’ and are viewed by practitioners as ‘poor parents’.

Many thanks again to Donald for sharing the link with us.

*I haven’t clicked on the free link as I didn’t want to take up one of the free copies. If it doesn’t work – or if you’re the 51st person or later who clicks on it, please let me know.*


“It is about factual accuracy, ensuring the public are properly informed…”

The Daily Mail reported today that Iain Duncan Smith was ‘furious’ at the BBC for ‘adopting the language of Labour’ in relation to the so-called ‘Bedroom Tax’. The article highlights that Mr Duncan Smith believes ‘The BBC has a duty to inform the public. We believe that the BBC is failing in  this duty and confusing members of the public…’ and that ‘We do not believe it is the job of the BBC  to use misleading terms’. He goes on to add that ‘This is not simple debate about the “branding” of a policy. It is about factual accuracy, ensuring the public are  properly informed, and being clear about the political nature of terminology  that has gained common currency at the BBC.’ The last quote attributed to Mr Duncan Smith is The public expects you to do better.’

We were lucky enough to host an event with Professor Ruth Levitas this morning, during which she explored some of the language used around the ‘Troubled Families’ agenda and here are two quotations from her slides, with my emphases added:

‘That’s why today, I want to talk about troubled families. Let me be clear what I mean by this phrase. Officialdom might call them ‘families with multiple disadvantages’. Some in the press might call them ‘neighbours from hell’. Whatever you call them, we’ve known for years that a relatively small number of families are the source of a large proportion of the problems in society. Drug addiction. Alcohol abuse. Crime. A culture of disruption and irresponsibility that cascades through generations. We’ve always known that these families cost an extraordinary amount of money…but now we’ve come up the actual figures. Last year the state spent an estimated £9 billion on just 120,000 families…that is around £75,000 per family.’

David Cameron  December 2011

‘the Government recently identified a group of 120,000 troubled families whose lives are so chaotic they cost the Government some £9 billion in the last year alone’.

Iain Duncan Smith, Foreword, Department for Work and Pensions (2012) Social Justice: transforming lives,

Neither of the above statements are ‘factually correct’ as Professor Levitas highlighted this morning and there are other quotations from government ministers that have also been found wanting, especially in regard to the issue of alleged ‘cultures of worklessness’:

‘there are four generations of families where no-one has ever had a job’*

Chris Grayling, Minister for Work and Pensions, 2011

‘And those who have no interest in work, because they have seen their parents, their neighbours and their entire communities sit on benefits for life, have simply had their destructive lifestyle confirmed’

Iain Duncan Smith (15 March 2011)

Professor Levitas highlighted in her presentation the recent report called ‘The lies we tell ourselves’ produced by a number of churches about the ‘comfortable myths’ surrounding poverty. She also used a quote from the press release accompanying the report from Paul Morrsion of the Methodist Church – ‘we
have a culture which allows us to tell lies in public life’.

Given the Minister’s concern about the standards expected of the BBC, we welcome and share his desire to improve the ‘factual accuracy’ of some of the  language in political debates – and would like to see this desire extended to the language used to represent families and individuals experiencing poverty in the UK today. If Mr Duncan Smith believes that the public expects better of the BBC, he will, I am sure, be aware that our expectations of the government are equally as high, if not higher.

*The slides from Professor Macdonald and Professor Shildrick’s presentation on ‘cultures of worklessness’ can be found here.

The slides from Professor Levitas’ talk can be found here and you can find her working paper on Troubled Families here

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