A credible plan to tackle poverty must go beyond election-friendly headlines

Alan Milburn has warned that the political parties are failing to address poverty. With poverty on the political agenda, Helen Barnard assesses where their plans need to go further.

With an election looming, all the political parties are firing out policies and promises: competing to sound ‘tough’, ‘responsible’ and ‘fair’ and to show that they can improve Britain’s future prospects and restore the public finances.

Yet this weekend, Alan Milburn, who chairs the Government’s social mobility and child poverty commission, said that all of the main political parties are making too little effort to “to reconcile the social ends they say they want with the policy means to which each of them are committed”.

Any party interested in fairness should put poverty reduction at the heart of their manifestos. They all say how important it is to reduce poverty but none of them has put forward a convincing strategy to do so. The commission’s State of the Nation report gives a detailed analysis of the depth of this failure.

As Milburn outlines, there are serious flaws in the headline measures advocated by the different political parties. Raising the Personal Allowance for income tax is an incredibly expensive and inefficient way of helping low-income working households. Increasing the minimum wage is one step to improve the incomes of low-paid people, but the commitment made by Ed Miliband to raise it to £8 per hour actually implies a lower rate of rises between now and 2020 than we have seen in the last decade.

David Cameron has vowed to end youth unemployment by creating millions of new apprenticeships. Youth unemployment should definitely be a high priority for any new government – in 2003, 67 per cent of young people were in work; by 2013, only 58 per cent were. Apprenticeships are a vital route to better-quality, more stable work and should be expanded. But to pay for them, the Prime Minister is extending a policy with little basis in evidence – the household benefit cap – and trading it off against people on out-of-work benefits.

What all of the parties seem to miss is that tackling poverty takes more than isolated policies to boost pay, reduce tax or squeeze benefits. It requires an evidence-based, comprehensive anti-poverty strategy. Such a strategy should include action on four underlying issues:

  1. reducing living costs: for example increasing the amount of affordable housing and reducing childcare costs;
  2. improving the quality of jobs at the bottom of the labour market so that work becomes a more effective route out of poverty;
  3. reforming the benefits and tax credit system so that working more always leads to a higher income, and to provide a secure safety net for those who cannot work, those who move in and out of work and those who are not able to work sufficiently to support themselves;
  4. improving the prospects of the next generation by closing the educational attainment gap between richer and poorer children and helping families to give their children the support they need.

Any battle on the responsibility and fairness fronts should take heed of the high levels of poverty across the UK. In the last few months before the election, all of the parties should be focusing on putting forward a coherent, comprehensive strategy (something JRF is devising and will report back on next year), rather than aiming for quick headlines with short-term fixes that fall well short of what’s required.