Tackling Poverty: Reflections on the Prime Minister’s Speech

10 Downing St.jpgDuncan Shrubsole, Director of Partnerships, Policy and Communications reflects on last week’s speech by the Prime Minister on the government’s plans for tackling poverty.

Last week the world was waking up to the shock of the seemingly sudden death of the master of reinvention that was David Bowie.

The news rather obscured a landmark speech by another David, one David Cameron our Prime Minister, making a key speech setting out what he said was a bold ambition to “transform the life chances of the poorest in our country and offer every child who has had a difficult start the promise of a brighter future.”

The speech perhaps inevitably received praise from the Right, criticism from the Left and some considered analysis which recommended it should be part of a bigger, more comprehensive approach.

I have written before about the need to “think Tory”

I have written before about the need to “think Tory” and how if we want to influence policy and practice we need our arguments and approaches to have traction with this Government and conservative thinking more widely. This speech then, is the perfect set text to get to grips with and merits reading in full.

The tone and approach is striking – unlike most Ministerial speeches which tend to say little but repeat it often, this one is long and detailed with lots of references to research, and a number of announcements of policy and programmes. It indicates the Prime Minister has spent time thinking about the issues and has a genuine personal interest – and hopefully commitment – to carrying these forward. The speech itself builds on that which Cameron gave at the Conservative Party Conference, committing him to an “all-out assault on poverty” but this time with some welcome specifics in five key areas:

Lloyds Bank Foundation - Wild Parents Project - St Austell
Wild Young Parents’ Project, supported by Lloyds Bank Foundation © Sam Mellish
  • strengthening families and early years, including through tweaking the Troubled Families programme, rolling-out parenting classes and encouraging saving
  • strengthening educational opportunities through “character building initiatives and cultural engagement”, particularly with the expansion of the National Citizen Service (NCS)
  • improving equality of opportunity through better careers advice and mentoring
  • tackling and regenerating the 100 worst so-called “sink” social housing estates
  • supporting “those in crisis”, particularly those suffering from mental ill-health, and encouraging new approaches to drug and alcohol addiction.

The need for change and action in these areas is widely recognised. In particular it is very welcome to see a Prime Minister actively championing better mental health, especially the much neglected but silent crises of post-natal depression, psychosis and eating disorders – a testament to years of campaigning by mental health charities and others. So far, so good but there are three main challenges that could be levelled at the speech and the agenda set out:

“How Dare He When…”
The first challenge to make might be characterised as the “How dare he when…” challenge which basically decries how Cameron can claim any ambition to tackle poverty whilst at the same time being the Prime Minister presiding over the abolition of the Child Poverty Targets, the cuts to benefits and a whole range of local services, including specifically Sure Start Centres, and the undermining of the role of social housing etc etc. Many of these changes are indeed worrying and do directly undermine his stated ambition and while we should make that clear, we should also move beyond it – I would far rather have a Prime Minister who at least says he cares about poverty and offers some new proposals, whilst making these cuts and changes, rather than one which just made cuts without a second thought.

The need to tackle both structural poverty and help individuals
The second challenge has similarities to the first but is more methodological. It is somewhat depressing to see our politics back in the 80s trenches with one side arguing poverty is all about individuals’ characteristics and the other that it is all about structural factors. Whilst the Prime Minister is right that tackling poverty is not just about public money he should surely recognise a conflict between it and cutting benefits.

As Herriot Watt University demonstrated in ground-breaking research last year we must cut through the “eternal standoff” in social policy and recognise that for those suffering the greatest disadvantage, they owe their circumstances of poverty to both structural economic factors and the behaviour of both themselves and their parents. It’s clear that we need both strong welfare and housing provision and to strengthen interventions targeted at those with the most complex needs and their families.

Practical Change Makes the Greatest Difference
Thirdly, in the voluntary sector we are all too aware that policies are only as good as the commitment and resources available to see them through.

We should be concerned that the scale of the resources committed is really quite limited and seems misdirected”

We should be concerned that the scale of the resources committed to Cameron’s aims is really quite limited and seems misdirected in its focus on the NCS, which as the Centre for Social Justice points out “will receive more new money than addiction, family support, psychiatric services in A&E, natal and ante-natal mental health care, and mentoring combined”. Whilst the NCS seems great for those who participate, there is no evidence that it really is a tool for fighting poverty and for a Government that believes in localism its top down nature seems incongruous and even potentially poor value for money. There are real questions too around how estate regeneration will be funded and the worry must be that it will involve releasing land primarily for new houses for private sale with genuinely affordable rental properties –and those who rely on them – marginal at best. There is also some confusion as to whether Cameron is talking about better help for all families such as around parenting, or focusing on the most needy. When resources are very tight, spreading them too thinly will not help.

Harnessing The Power of Charities
For me the key missing piece of the puzzle was an outline of the best delivery mechanism for these ambitions. It was striking that there were only three brief mentions of charities in the speech and always alongside businesses. If we, as the Prime Minster wants, are, for example, to improve the parenting and educational aspirations and available opportunities of the “toughest” families, then we will only be able to do so with and through organisations that are on the ground already reaching out to, engaging with, understanding of and trusted by those communities, families and individuals. At Lloyds Bank Foundation we would argue passionately that that must include our best specialist, small and locally based charities who will reach the hardest to reach, and engage and commit to the individuals others see as having failed or been fixed, and left to fend for themselves.

we worry that delivery of these new ambitions will be through yet more centrally-led and contracted delivery silos”

But we know funding and commissioning across Government is going the way of size and scale so we worry that delivery of these new ambitions will be through yet more centrally-led and contracted delivery silos, and so must champion the need for the resources to reach the voluntary sector on the front-line.

Let’s get busy
So, the speech was certainly a helpful statement of intent but we should all see it as a starting point from which to actively engage to help shape, improve and develop these ambitions and more before the Government finalises and launches its Life Chances strategy in the Spring.

David Cameron also made a big personal statement of credo early in the last Parliament – namely when he set out his vision for the Big Society. There were similar criticisms of substance and detail that were rightly made of that, but looking back, when the vision was not followed through and petered out  it led to a sense that the agenda had nothing to offer and didn’t matter, which I am certain has contributed to the marginalisation and attacks on the sector as that Parliament came to an end.

This time we must seize our moment and not just throw brickbats or sit tight”

This time we must seize our moment and not just throw brickbats or sit tight, instead welcoming and working alongside a Prime Minister who states boldly and clearly “Sometimes we can make politics sound very complicated, but for … people in Britain who are struggling today, our mission as a government is to look each parent and child in the eye, and say, ‘Your dreams are our dreams. We’ll support you with everything we’ve got.’”


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