Marcus Rashford presents the Conservative Party with a problem. No Conservative believes that any child in this country should ever go hungry, but we also want to build a society in which parents are able to earn enough to support their own children and, where that is not the case, in which there is a welfare state that supports those in need. These are our long-term objectives.
So what happens at a moment of crisis when there is a short-term need, and why has the call for the expansion of holiday provision of food and activities to support an additional 1.1 million children in the short term gathered such momentum?
In 2016, the Government abolished the old measure of poverty as an official measure. This means since that year it has been walking blind. Policy decisions have been made in a vacuum without a tool that shines a spotlight on the needs of the most disadvantaged.
The Government has made some great decisions, but without the certainty that what they are doing is hitting the target. Has poverty gone up? Is it plateauing? Until there is an agreed metric that tracks this, who can say?
That is why I launched the Social Metrics Commission (SMC) in 2016, drawing from left and right, and have proposed a new set of poverty metrics: to end the war on poverty measurement so that we could put our energy into working towards an effective poverty reduction strategy.
By the SMC measure, until the start of Covid-19, Conservatives could rightly declare that work was the best route out of poverty and, with record high levels of employment, this strategy was clearly effective, with 90 per cent of households where both adults work full time being out of poverty.
But during this global pandemic, the SMC measure also tells us it is those in deep poverty who are being most significantly impacted by the virus. Two in three (65 per cent) of those employed and in deep poverty prior to the crisis have seen reduced hours or earnings, been furloughed, and/or lost their job.
Although these numbers are not tracked by the Government, the public instinctively feels this to be the case. Locally, Conservatives know this too and are responding with short-term fixes.
The London borough of Kensington and Chelsea for example has promised £15 food vouchers over half-term for its 3,300 local children eligible for free school meals. Councillor Josh Rendall, the lead member for family and children’s services, said: “This is not a long-term solution but this is an exceptional year and we know it has been a tough one for many families.”
Conservatives have a good story to tell. Number 10 and 11 have worked tirelessly to put the entire resources of Government behind protecting the British people from Covid-19, including in the short term with increased support in the benefit system, the Job Retention (and soon Support) Scheme and, in the long term, through improved services for mental health and education, tackling the costs of housing and driving forward the levelling up agenda.
But in the absence of an effective poverty measure, we are unable to quantify the positive impact of all of these choices, gain credit for a comprehensive strategy on poverty, or identify whether there are short term challenges that still need to be addressed.
We need to be able to say that no child in Britain will go hungry on our watch – but we can’t. And we are allowing others to create a narrative for us, and in the absence of an agreed poverty measure and subsequent strategy, we always will. This does not need to be the case.
Had we had the SMC measure already in place, we would have been monitoring the impact of Covid-19 on the most vulnerable during this time of crisis. Had we adopted the SMC measure, we would have known in May that although the pandemic is hitting everyone, it is hitting those in deepest poverty the most and that short term measures may be required to see the poorest through this time.
It was Will Quince, a Work and Pensions Minister, who first announced that the department was taking forward the SMC measure of poverty and developing Experimental Statistics, back in May 2019. But even now, when accurate and timely data is needed more than ever, the work has stalled.
I know there will be some who will be nervous about a new measure of poverty, even one that has gained consensus across the political spectrum and already won the Government much political capital. But the measure is in effect a framework. It is the best way of capturing the “who” is in poverty – the “who” we need to be concerned about and looking out for. The Government can then decide where it wants to place its effort – so at a time like this it would have focused on those most impacted.
The Government could decide to focus on those who are moving in and out of poverty and close to the labour market (the top seven million). That is in effect what the £20 uplift has done in Universal Credit.
Or, it could decide to focus energy and resources on those in deep poverty – those who are 50 per cent below the poverty line (bottom 4.5 million). This is the most vulnerable group and where I would put my energy and effort at a time of national crisis. This is who many of the public thinks of as being in poverty, which is why they are so concerned now and why Rashford has received so much support.
I know that many Conservatives, like myself, came into politics because we were concerned about the long-term drivers of poverty. We feel deeply concerned about the most vulnerable in the nation. We know that poverty is about money, but that it is also about family, education and skills, debt, housing, sickness and disability, and employment. It is about the support being there when you need it so that you can get up and onto your own two feet again and find your own way out of poverty for you and your family.
This is a moment to take action in the short term – as the Government has been doing and still needs to do – but it is also a moment to get our house in order for the long term: to adopt the SMC poverty measure and build a comprehensive poverty strategy so that now and in the future we can say hand on heart, on our watch: no child went hungry.