Dani Garavelli: Compassionate conservatism is dead

Changing the government's definition does nothing to alter the grinding reality of poverty. Picture: Getty
Changing the government's definition does nothing to alter the grinding reality of poverty. Picture: Getty
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I’M NOT sure Iain Duncan Smith’s decision to scrap the Child Poverty Act marks the death of “compassionate conservatism”: I think it expired so long ago rigor mortis has already set in. The influence of the Liberal Democrats may have kept it on life support through the first raft of benefits reforms – albeit in a persistent vegetative state, with all traces of its personality extinguished. But as soon as the general election was over, the Tory party pulled the plug as it reiterated its determination to shave another £12 billion from the welfare budget.

Last week, 70 prominent Catholics urged IDS, himself a practising Catholic, to resuscitate the concept, criticising policies such as the fitness-to-work tests, harsher sanctions, the benefits cap and the roll-out of universal credit. “We would not expect prisoners in our jails to be punished in this way, and would be grateful if you would consider whether it is an appropriate way to treat people who are unemployed, sick, or disabled,” they said. The UK’s four Children’s Commissioners also launched a direct attack in advance of Chancellor George Osborne’s emergency budget in which the details of the latest welfare cuts are expected to be revealed. But if a previous intervention by the Church of England, and the rising number of foodbanks and benefits-related suicides haven’t shamed the Work and Pensions Secretary, then it seems unlikely a ticking off from Tom Devine or Tam Baillie will do the trick.

The suffering of the country’s most vulnerable is not an inevitable consequence of the current economic climate, it is the result of a calculated decision to put the better-off first. Duncan Smith knows child poverty is on the rise; he knows tinkering with the definition won’t make people’s lives any less miserable. But if moving the goalposts can distract the public from the extent of his party’s failure, then he’s willing to give it a shot.

Like a dysfunctional Robin Hood, the government needs to take from low-income families so it can line the pockets of the better-off; how else will it fund all its middle-class give-aways? Though it insists the predicted scrapping of the inheritance tax on homes worth less than £1 million will be paid for by limiting pension tax relief for those earning more than £150,000, the move is still like giving the finger to those who are buckling under the burden of austerity Britain and have had to brace themselves for cuts to tax credits.

Duncan Smith says the decision to scrap the Child Poverty Act was motivated by a desire to tackle the causes of child poverty rather than the symptoms. Driven by Tony Blair, the act set out four measures of poverty: absolute low income, relative low income, persistent poverty and material deprivation – and set targets for each of them (with child poverty to be eradicated by 2020). The Work and Pensions Secretary’s biggest beef is with the principal measure, relative poverty – defined as children who live in households with less than 60 per cent of the median income – which he says has led to an undue emphasis on money. The fact he took the decision to scrap the act after reports by the Institute of Fiscal Studies (IFS) and Save the Children predicted a dramatic rise in relative child poverty by 2020 is apparently a coincidence.

Duncan Smith plans to define poverty using a range of other factors, such as unemployment, family breakdown, educational attainment and addiction thus leaving the UK as the only OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) country not to use the “relative poverty” indicator. There are several flaws in this approach: firstly, a large proportion (63 per cent) of those currently defined as poor are living in homes where at least one parent is working. Secondly, though family breakdown and addiction may increase the risk of poverty, they are not synonymous with it. Lastly, the new measures mix social judgment with hard economic fact. And doesn’t that just suit a government which has spent the past five years stigmatising those on benefits?

At the moment, one in five children in Scotland are deemed to be living in poverty: that is, their families struggle to pay for food, fuel, clothes and school trips. Under IDS’s definition there will be just as much need, but fewer “poor”; and those who still qualify for the description will do so not because of low wages, zero hours contracts or welfare reforms, but because their parents are deemed to have failed. The IFS report may claim the impact of the government’s welfare reforms will be to increase relative poverty among children by 200,000 in 2015-16 and again in 2020-21. But, really, it’s their families’ fault if children fall through the cracks.

This is the kind of double-think that will allow the government to outline its proposed cuts on Wednesday – be it a lowering of the welfare cap, the freezing of working age benefits or the removal of housing benefits from young people who are unemployed – while potentially cutting the top rate of income tax to 40p, and continue to claim the moral high ground.

But people aren’t so gullible. Surely they understand you can’t abolish the grinding reality of poverty by changing its definition. However emphatically Duncan Smith claims his goal is to break the cycle of dependency, it is obvious the government is picking on those least able to fight back. The Tories may have nailed “compassionate conservatism” to its perch, but like the man in the Monty Python pet shop, all but the most blinkered must be able to see it has kicked the bucket, shuffled off its mortal coil and joined the choir invisible. «