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1 March 2024

The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Poverty

 

If a government cannot house its own population, then what is it there for? I posed this question to the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Poverty this week, along with a plan on how to end deprivation in Britain in five years, without raising taxes. The group was enthusiastic and cautious in equal measure. The raft of problems that our population faces can wear down even the most ardent campaigners - and yet they carry on undeterred.

 

The APPG is raising the voices of marginalised people across the country. I say ‘marginalised’ but in reality, financial pressures are so great for millions in the UK that poverty is increasingly becoming the norm, especially for children. It is a damning indictment of the failure of successive governments that so many children in twenty-first century Britain aren’t able to eat three meals a day and don’t expect three meals a day because none of their friends receive them. This was the message given to me by Marsha Powell, the CEO of BelEve, a charity that works with disadvantaged women and girls in South London. Her experiences encapsulate so much of what is happening nationwide. But there is hope.

 

As I travel round the country giving talks on my book Eliminating Poverty in Britain, I have been surprised by how many Social Mobility Networks exist in major organisations, including The Bank of England, The Financial Conduct Authority and OFCOM. All of them are led by people who want to raise the issue of poverty and inequality in their workplaces and seek to deal with it in constructive and thoughtful ways. These groups - of which the public knows little about, are chipping away at the barriers which create and maintain poverty in our country.

 

In the past 15 years there has also been an explosion in scientific research into how our environment affects the human body. Poverty is a form of trauma and if we want to change Britain for the better, then we need to start by making people feel safe. When the body lives without the essentials it needs, the brain enters the trauma state and freezes areas needed for learning, listening and emotional control - all the parts needed to gain good school grades and keep a well paid job. All this leads to a clear conclusion: Everyone benefits in a society without poverty, irrespective of how much money they have.

 

In the upcoming general election, NHS waiting times, crime levels, economic growth and education will inevitably be key areas of debate. Yet, if we deal with deprivation and the stress that it causes, all of these will naturally improve.

 

We don’t need a revolution to end poverty in Britain. We already have many of the structures we need. However the concept remains on the outskirts of public policy awaiting its day. Instead, it should be seens as the natural progression of a developed society.

 

Our country is deeply cynical of politicians’ promises, and understandably so, but we must keep the faith that a brighter future is possible. As the Illinois Governor, JB Pritzker once said, “The kindest person in the room is often the smartest”. Compassion is not a weakness and by moving away from “the undeserving poor” stereotype, we could create a society which is fit for every person who lives in it.

8 November 2023

UK Home Secretary, Suella Braverman, seeks to fine homeless people and charities for their tents.

It is very easy to blame the poor for their poverty. This week, Britain’s Home Secretary, Suella Braverman wrote proudly on Twitter/X that she wants to create a new civil offence to allow the authorities to fine charities who give out tents to the homeless, and fine the homeless themselves if their tent is in an inconvenient spot and deemed to be a public nuisance. Her argument was that people who sleep rough choose to do so and so it is right to remove their tents from them. 

 

We cannot allow our streets to be taken over by rows of tents occupied by people, many of them from abroad, living on the streets as a lifestyle choice” @SuellaBraverman 4 November 2023.

 

When I read it, my stomach turned. The “undeserving poor” is a Victorian notion which has served certain politicians very well over the years and given them an easier life. Blaming the poor for their situation gives politicians an opt-out clause for laziness in public office. 

 

Eliminating poverty in Britain is a far harder task and yet, if we are honest, it is the only way of achieving the society we want, with lower waiting times on the NHS, lower crime rates, better mental health and a thriving economy. Even climate change cannot be fully dealt with unless inequality is reduced.

 

For Suella Braverman and all the other Conservative MPs who voted against and abstained from the free school meals vote during the pandemic, the idea of eliminating poverty in Britain is not on their radar. Fears around the general election in the next 18 months are skewing the need for well planned and properly considered policies which can actually help our homeless population.

 

There are many reasons why there are 1.4 million people on the social housing waiting list and high levels of street homelessness. Successive governments haven't built enough homes and housing hasn't been a priority. In the past 15 years, Britain has had 13 housing ministers, seven of whom in the last four years. The churn of housing ministers increases uncertainty and prevents plans from reaching maturity.

 

The removal of housing benefit for under-25s during David Cameron's tenure also pushed many young people into poverty and the ripple effects of austerity continue to be felt. In reality, austerity never ended. 

 

If the Home Secretary really wants to deal with poverty, she would begin with a plan on how to end it in five years, without raising taxes. Governments in Britain are not elected on the basis of raising taxes and there is no guarantee of re-election, so accepting these parameters is fundamental.

 

It would be an immense task, but with compassion, focus and a detailed plan which works in conjunction with the green agenda, it could be achieved. At the very least, we should try. If poverty levels were halved in five years, that would still mean taking seven million people out of poverty. It would still be worth doing, but without aiming for 100% those levels would never be reached. It needs an all-or-nothing approach. 

 

There is money in the pot to pay for it, if you know where to look. Excessive government waste through poor decision-making and accounting could save millions, and creating a new social gilt fund could raise billions of pounds ring-fenced for social good.

 

Eliminating poverty in Britain is not a utopian fantasy. We would just be creating a society which is fit for every person who lives in it. If Suella Braverman really wants to help the homeless, she would be thinking holistically and planning properly, rather than pushing the divide and rule agenda.

 

It is a weak way of behaving for someone in such a position of authority and power. Thankfully, it did not go unchallenged. The National Housing Federation, Crisis, Centrepoint and a raft of other front line organisations wrote an open letter against her plans. It is blindingly obvious that it is a terrible idea and concerning that she thought it was a good idea at all. We need strong politicians who understand the society they are running. Sadly when it comes to our Home Secretary, we will be waiting a while. Her attitude is not just a mistake, it signals someone who has no comprehension or compassion for reality.