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Opinion

I’m going to persuade the government to declare war on poverty. Here’s how 

How do we move people towards a living rather than a minimum wage? John Bird’s Ministry of Poverty Prevention bill is set to be put to the government

A woundedness always haunts governments that are losing the contest for the popular vote. Hence the kybosh of current political leadership. A sense of unbelievability descends. Ministers who formerly could bat off the most difficult of interrogations fold once the governmental show to be empty of vitality. Gordon Brown swept into office having seen off all threats to his assuming the leadership of government once Blair had surrendered. Yet a few years later he left Number 10 like a wounded animal, empty, seemingly rundown, and unbelievable. Even though, possibly of all recent prime ministers, he was just the right and decisive one in the face of a global economic meltdown.  

Of course, he socialised the banks and made them no different from any other nationalised industry. And then he and the subsequent economic ministers gave capitalism back to the banks once the taxpayer had repaired and refunded them – with none of the safeguards to ensure that the taxpayer was insured against further maltreatment from the banks in future. Even though it was Joe Public who had saved the economic system and the banks from bankruptcy.  

At the moment there is precious little evidence that this government will be doing decisive and clever things with the rest of the time they have before a general election. Pulling the political rabbit out of the political hat seems unimaginable at this stage.  

Yet we still live in hope that things will get demonstrably better, nationally and internationally. We live in hope that Section 21, which allows the ‘no fault’ evictions that are driving a new cohort of people into homelessness, will be removed from the statute books forthwith, five years after such a move was promised. And that Rishi Sunak, with great aplomb, manages to stop the killings in Gaza. And so on and so forth.  

Last week I raised a question in the Lords as to the possibility of raising the minimum wage to £15. That’s an increase from £10.42 – a big leap. An impossible leap, though, because while this would theoretically get people nearer to a living wage, thousands of businesses could not afford to shoulder such a hike in costs.  

And as nearly half the workforce in the UK is on or near the minimum wage, you can imagine the disruption to the economy such a vast leap would foment. My question, though, had a deeper meaning to it. How do we move people towards a living rather than a minimum wage? What does the government have to do to stop us continuing to produce a low-wage workforce, and companies that can only survive if they pay people a barely manageable wage?  

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These are the big questions that governments are voted in to answer: not simply a kind of low-wage economy sitting underneath a low investment economy. Is there any indication that this government can make us into, or has brought us nearer to being, a high- wage economy, a ‘skilled-away-from-poverty’ economy?  

Is there any evidence that the next administration, if it is a Labour government, will begin the long and deep and at times slow work necessary to create a high-wage economy? Are there signs that the big reinvention of government that such a task requires is likely to happen? Certainly the current cumbersome government format would not bring us the desired rewards: a socially transforming economy that attacks poverty both at birth and consistently throughout the years as people grow.  

In the next few weeks I will introduce my bill for the creation of a Ministry of Poverty Prevention. It is a deeply unpopular bill among politicians because it raises the question that current government spending, and the way it is spent, is profoundly wasteful and inefficient. But if there is any uniformity in thinking in parliament across all political persuasions, it is that we should continue with budgeting for prisons, hospitals, schools, education etc in exactly the way as it has been done (inefficiently) since time immemorial.  

So no one is going to declare a war on poverty and say: “With 40% of all government expenditure currently going on maintaining people who are in poverty – not preventing or getting people out of it – we need to reinvest in turning the tap off.” 

I can’t see any future leader grabbing the abolition of poverty and making it their big thing. Even though every last one of them since the end of the Second World War has laid claim to the high ground of getting rid of, or seriously denting, the dominating presence of poverty in our midst. None of them have done any more, at best, than shifting a few out of poverty.  

One of the principal reasons that so many people were hit by the cost of living crisis is that so many are living in or near poverty in our economy. No one in government is responsible for building the big and deep educational and social programmes that will end the tyranny of millions having only one thing they inherit at birth – which is poverty.  

What if you cannot lay down the foundation stones in family life that give your children opportunity and not just hope? That enable them to have a freer and fuller life? Why can we not get ministering to the poor out of its prime position in government spending and convert it to investment in social mobility and opportunity? It would require a revolution in political thinking and governmental structure; but the present incumbents of all parties are closed to such a need.  

But we must live in hope. At times it comes just before opportunity. 

John Bird is the founder and editor-in-chief of The Big Issue. Read more of his words here.

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This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income. To support our work buy a copy!

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