Leaders: First step in measuring poverty

Iain Duncan Smith scrapped old targets on child poverty. Picture: PA

Iain Duncan Smith scrapped old targets on child poverty. Picture: PA

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THE poor you will always have with you.

It’s a line that, like many in the Bible, prompts different interpretations – for instance, one person can claim that it means it is impossible to eliminate poverty, while an alternative view is that it means those in poverty should never be forgotten and our challenge is to do better by them every day.

The first interpretation is often criticised as a washing of hands; if poverty cannot be eradicated, we should not allow ourselves to get too worked up about it. It can be taken as a strange kind of comfort, to ease our guilt. Understandably, those who devote their lives to helping the poor are the least likely to accept the proposition that nothing – or not much – can be done in the grand scheme of things. They are entitled to rail against such a defeatist or lazy attitude as an abrogation of ­responsibility.

Nevertheless, there is an element of truth in the belief that poverty cannot be wiped out. This becomes an inescapable fact if poverty is measured in relative terms: for people to be rich, someone has to be poor.

Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith addressed this matter when he announced plans to replace Labour’s Child Poverty Act with new legislation, scrapping the official measures and targets which define a child as being in poverty if they are in a household with less than 60 per cent of the national median average income.

Reactions from interested parties ranged from deep concern over the departure to ­acknowledgment that the current measure of child poverty is not effective. Using relative terms, poverty could be reduced if an economic crash hit the wealthiest hard and closed the gap between rich and poor by simply drawing back the rich while the poor standing still.

A more relevant method is required to measure poverty if policies to reduce the number of people caught in this trap are to be effective.

Those who are cynical about Mr Duncan Smith’s motives probably have a right to be wary, because tackling poverty could not be considered one of the Conservatives’ main priorities. Yet there is some sense in what he proposes, such as taking account of worklessness, ­educational attainment and family breakdown when analysing child poverty. Indeed, ­Labour’s Frank Field, who chairs the Commons work and pensions select committee, said it was a “welcome start”.

Mr Field is right – even if the new measures were to be effective, they would only represent a beginning, rather than an effective strategy. It is important to accurately calculate who and how many children live in poverty, but playing with numbers will have no material impact on the real lives of those affected. It is only on this criterion that Mr Duncan Smith’s new approach can eventually be judged.

Hard but fair response to abhorrent crime

THERE is no excuse or place for domestic abuse in Scotland, says First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, who believes we need to do all we can to protect people from this abhorrent crime.

Doing all we can means going beyond existing practices, which have not been the deterrent we seek. The ability to investigate and reveal people’s personal histories, which could otherwise have remained in the past, takes us into new territory. Is this an unacceptable invasion of privacy? Should an offender not be afforded a second chance, with the right to move on from a mistake as a reformed character, without having to be confronted with it for the rest of his or her life?

The hard but fair answer is that Clare’s Law, under which people will be able to ask the police if their partner has a history of domestic abuse, is legitimate and appropriate. One of the greatest tragedies of domestic abuse is that the victim can often find out too late about a partner’s secret past. A pilot scheme of Clare’s Law in Aberdeen and Ayrshire saw 59 applications and 22 disclosures made over a six-month period. We do not know how many cases of domestic abuse this process prevented, but the information allowed informed decisions to be made about whether an individual wished to continue with a relationship which could present a risk to personal safety that had not previously been detectable.

The offender’s right to a second chance is not withdrawn; disclosures will not be public announcements. Clare’s Law is a necessary guard against repeat offenders. It is only reasonable that the vulnerable have a right to know the circumstance they might unwittingly find themselves in.

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