On my way from a meeting at the Institute of Fiscal Studies to the Department of Work and Pensions yesterday, I picked up a copy of the Evening Standard on the tube. The headline rang ‘The Dispossessed’: London is a shameful tale of two cities. In the richest capital in Europe almost half our children live below the poverty line.
It was refreshing to see a mainstream media outfit deal with the issue of poverty in London. This is something one of the CREATE Consortium’s members, Community Links, has been blogging about recently.
Reading Joe Murphy’s How politics turned its back on the dispossessed, was particularly interesting given the conversation I had just had with the Institute of Fiscal Studies’ Mike Brewer. We were discussing the difference in attitude that both politicians and the public have towards benefits payments and tax credits. Both are tax payer’s money and yet benefits are seen as a drain on the public purse, something to be minimised at all costs, while tax credits are seen as a positive intervention.
It left me wondering from a campaigning point of view what we could do to change this attitude. It goes to the heart of why there is a need for a Community Allowance. If you are on Job Seekers Allowance and try to work for under 16 hours a week you have penny for penny taken away; the earnings disregard still being only £5 a week – less than an hours work on the minimum wage, unchanged since 1988! Yet if you take a job of 16 hours, tax credits protect your income and you are better off in work.
What kind of message does this send to people who want to get themselves out of poverty by taking some part time work? Why did the Government decide that 16 hours is good but 8 hours is bad? It’s an illogical distinction, only made logical by the pervsersity of the difference between the benefits system and tax credits. It has to change.
Interestingly, I am noticing that there seems to be a growing understanding of the necessity of this change, across the political spectrum. This marked change in attitude has come about in the last two years through a wealth of campaigning about the earnings disregard and influential reports such as the Centre for Social Justices’ Dynamic Benefits.
On Saturday I was on a panel with Tim Loughton MP (of Tower Block of Commons fame) Shadow Minister for Children, at the Conservative Party Spring Forum. He seemed to get it. So did Terry Rooney MP, Chair of the DWP Select Committee, who I met yesterday after I’d been to the DWP.
The question is, what are politicians going to do about it? In a new era of austerity and public spending cuts, how do we tackle poverty? We think the Community Allowance is part of the answer to that question. For a change in the benefits regulations you get a win-win-win: for the person on benefits, earning a bit of money and gaining real work experience, for the community having socially valuable work done locally and for the tax payer every £1 spent on a Community Allowance would create £10.20 worth of social value.
We’re still waiting to hear from DWP about whether we can pilot the Community Allowance. The pace of the discussions in response to our Right to Bid proposal originally submitted in January 2009 is making us question the depth and sincerity of their commitment to pilot it in the 2008 White Paper. We’ll be blogging soon about what we’re thinking of doing next and how you can get involved.