Thursday, November 23, 2006

Poverty Wars

Still picking up new fans

Greg Clark is one of the few MPs I actually know, and I have developed the utmost respect for his views. On everything I have ever discussed with him, and everything I've ever heard him say, he's been entirely sound. And impressively, he's one of the few top Tories who went to a bog-standard comp.

So when, two weeks into his new shadow job on charities, he comes out with a paper on poverty that brings down one of the biggest avalanches of critical comments ever seen on Conservative Home, I'm left scratching my head.

Let's start with absolute vs relative poverty. Thanks to James Bartholomew, we know that the left invented the concept of relative poverty in 1959 to justify a huge expansion in the welfare state. But as Greg points out in his paper, the idea that poverty can only be sensibly defined in the context of the society to which it relates, actually goes back much further, at least as far as Adam Smith.

And while Churchill talked about his famous "safety net", he was pretty vague about the height at which it should be set. These days, I'm guessing he'd accept that a British family who could not afford a fridge and a washing machine would be poor.

So for me, unlike some conservatives, there's no fundamental problem with the idea of saying that poverty is a relative concept, and that the calibration of the poverty line depends on how rich everyone else is.

Obviously that still leaves huge questions about where and exactly how to draw that line- eg I reckon 60% of median income is too high, and we should have stuck at the traditional 50% (eg see this blog). And clearly the problems of many poor families will not be solved by simply doling out ever larger pots of money.

But at this stage, Greg isn't actually suggesting anything other than doing some more thinking.

And he's absolutely right to point out that Labour's much trumpeted success in "reducing poverty" is little more than yet another scandalous fudge, with the gainers heavily concentrated among the rich poor. The much harder to reach poor poor- ie the ones who really need the help- have actually slipped even further. Exactly like the £3bn Sure Start fiasco (see this blog).

But bigging up Pol is of course an entirely different matter. As is the use of that desert caravan analogy which implies that slowing down the whole is justified to make sure everyone stays together.

As a shock tactic, it's certainly done the trick, garnering far more attention than Greg ever managed during his fairly brief time on the Public Accounts Committee. And I guess we must see it as part of DC's war of electoral movement.

But poverty is an issue that's always been difficult for Tories, and Greg is right to cast around for some fresh thinking. So while shaken, I'm not stirred. I reckon that Gregs' final conclusions will be some way from the Polly Heaven so wonderfully described by Boris this morning.

PS Just to put this in a money context, we're now spending getting on for £180bn pa on "Social Protection".

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