By Oliver Letwin, the Conservative party’s head of policy (THE GUARDIAN, 11/04/06):
A few months ago, I caused eyebrows to rise when I said that David Cameron’s Conservatives were committed to narrowing the gap between the poor and the rest of us. Some weeks later, the same eyebrows went up when the Conservative party announced that the test for its policies would be their effect on the least advantaged. But, instead of withdrawing in the face of hostile fire, the shadow chancellor, George Osborne, rammed home the message to the party’s spring conference that modern compassionate conservatism means focusing on the least advantaged.
Today, I can confirm that David Cameron’s Conservatives are committed to the government target of ending child poverty by 2020. It is an aspiration, not a pledge, because we do not know how far from it we will be when we enter government. On current trends, we will miss our shared goal. If we don’t change direction, ending our reliance on the chancellor’s blunt tool of cash transfers, we will continue to move those just below the target to a position just above, without helping those at the very bottom.
If we imagine that it will be easy to meet this challenge, we shall fail. Nothing could be more arduous. This is not a field of endeavour in which short-term solutions or bureaucratic quick fixes have any part to play. The ambition has to be long term, and the policies will have to be long term.
The Conservative party is committing itself to a programme of social justice – to improving the lot of those whom David Davis has so evocatively called “the victims of state failure”. Of course, in the next election, we will be judged by our policies – and, if elected, we will be judged by whether those policies work. That is why we are investing two years of concentrated effort on our social-justice policy review.
But the first step towards formulating policies that can give meaning to our commitment to social justice is to recognise the true nature of the challenge. In the past eight years, although the government has missed its intermediate targets, 700,000 children have been lifted out of poverty, and that is something we wholeheartedly welcome – but most are in households that were only just below the poverty line.
There has been no substantial progress towards improving the plight of the very worst-off. Nearly one and a half million people live on an income of under £100 a week, even after benefits and tax credits. Real incomes have grown most slowly for the poorest in society. And since 1997, real incomes for the very poorest have fallen.
This deep deprivation is all too often passed down the generations. A child born to parents who are long-term recipients of benefits is more likely to be a long-term recipient of benefits. A child born into a family in which the mother failed to attain basic school-leaving qualifications is more likely to lack basic skills when entering the job market. Successive governments have failed to end this cycle. This is the real challenge. If we don’t empower people to break free from this trap, we will not end child poverty by 2020, or any other date.
This isn’t like the problem of families just below the poverty line; it can’t be solved by money alone. It is a problem of demoralised neighbourhoods, of broken families, of drug and alcohol dependency, of poor schooling, of poor housing and decrepit estates, of unemployment and unemployability, of children growing up with too little hope and too much fear.
Iain Duncan Smith, who is leading our social-justice policy group, recognised this years ago when he said that the Blair/Brown strategy wouldn’t achieve its noble aspiration “because it is one-dimensional”. As he predicted, Brown’s combination of money and centrally imposed schemes too often fails to tackle “the cycle of failing schools, drugs and relationship breakdown that fuels the deepest kind of child poverty”.
Where the effort of reconstruction comes from the bottom up, from the locality, from social enterprise meeting local need, sustainable progress can be made. Social entrepreneurs have already shown the difference they can make: people such as Dick Atkinson at the Balsall Heath Forum; Camila Batmanghelidjh at Kids Company; Debbie Scott at Tomorrow’s People. These, and others like them, are the heroes of the the fight to liberate people from the cycle of multiple deprivation.
For the state, the task – which modern Britain has not yet faced up to – is to find the framework that will enable these heroes to flourish. It is not the commanding state but the supportive state that we need: enabling society to support, inspire, mentor and lead young people out of deprivation.
But if we continue to avoid thinking seriously about the forgotten million and a half, we shall reach 2020 and discover again that child poverty and multiple deprivation have been left virtually untouched in one of the richest and most stable societies on earth. We have to begin the great debate that, as a country, we have been shy of having – the debate about the causes and the cures of the cycle of deprivation. David Cameron’s Conservatives intend to lead that debate.