Poverty Reduction - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 11:50 am on 22 February 2024.

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Photo of Lord Bird Lord Bird Crossbench 11:50, 22 February 2024

My Lords, for me, this is probably one of the most important debates that I could ever be involved in, and I am glad we have managed to get time for it. This is largely because, in my opinion, poverty is the background to everything, from racism all the way through to inequality. Our prisons are full of people who never got a fair crack of the whip at birth—and I am one of them. I come from a London Irish racist, small-minded and self-harming working class in Notting Hill; I have spoken about that on many occasions.

Growing up in poverty, with self-harming, drink, violence, wife-beating and all that, what I found so interesting was that I never met an adult in that world that I came into. All I met was self-defeat and people who were harmed by poverty so abjectly that, in some ways, they could never translate themselves into being fully human. They could never savour the advantages, as I later did when I became a posh boy because every time I got arrested, I learned things in the prison system—so, by the time I was 18, I was the posh guy that noble Lords see before them. Those people never went to the National Gallery. They never knew the difference between the trecento, the quattrocento and the cinquecento—neither do some people here. The point is that they were never allowed to be fully human.

We have to embrace that. When we embrace it, we have to realise that if we seriously want to do something about it, we need to look at the way we handle poverty in government, in local authorities, in charitable work, in our thinking and in how we respond to the needs of others. The traditional way of responding to the needs of others is to feel sorry for them—to pity them, to feel guilty and that what you really need to do is give the poor more. I came into the House of Lords and was immediately overrun by people wanting me to participate in some projects that were about giving the poor more. I said, “I’m sorry. I’m here to dismantle poverty and turn the tap off. I’m not here to deal with the everyday crisis of poverty, because I have to stand above it”. Somebody has to stand above it and try to bring all the efforts together so that poverty does not continue.

Giving the poor more has been going on for thousands of years. You can go back to the Greek philosophers: people established their humanity by giving the poor more. Every religion always wants to give the poor more. When I worked in America, I was astonished at the amount of schoolchildren I knew or met who would put food into a charity dumpster so that they could give the poor more. I did not see people make much effort to say, “Hang on—what are we doing here? Are we decreasing poverty or are we responding only to the everydayness—the precious thing?”.

I am an emergencist. I started the Big Issue 32 years ago to respond to the crisis of poverty, because I was appalled at the way that people saw homeless people on the streets of London, and then on the streets of cities throughout the UK, Europe, Asia, North America and South America, so I got involved then in giving the poor more. After 10 years of that, I was interviewed by the Times, which said, “Johnny Bird, what have you been doing for the last 10 years? You’ve been doing this, but what are you going to do for the next 10 or 20 years?” I said, “Well, for the last 10 years, I’ve been mending broken clocks. For the next 10 or 20 years, I’m going to try and prevent the clocks breaking”.

I created a methodology which I called PECC: prevention, emergency, coping and cure. What it threw up to me was that, in the intervention of state Governments and charities—and personal intervention from the public—80% of all the poverty money was spent on emergency and coping, with very little spent on prevention and cure. Each Government who came through—at the age of 78, I have been through many—always said that they put the fight to defeat poverty right at the top. Yet not one of them stopped and asked, “How do we reconfigure our governance? How do we reconfigure what we’re doing so that we can do a better job and turn the tap off, rather than using a tablespoon to take the water out of the bath?”. Everybody is at it, as was I for the first 10 years of my life as the Big Issue proprietor.

When I came into the House of Lords, I said that I came here to dismantle poverty. To do that is incredibly difficult when every government department that has anything to do with social justice or social opportunity always has a number of initiatives. Whenever a Government say to me that they have an initiative, I think “It’s a cover-up”—I am not speaking against the current Government, because I have been dealing with this for 30 years—because they do a little initiative, learn something from it and then put it aside. In fact, someone should do a history of government initiatives because it would find that they have tried every damn thing. The latest one is levelling up. I do not know why they do not call it “Get rid of poverty” or something like that.

I came in, I am sorry to say, to revolutionise the House of Lords and the Government, but not to pull them apart and get upset about who is here or there. I came in to concentrate on how to get the convergence of efforts so that when we use “emergency” we do so efficiently and deeply, and bring about changes. There are people in this House and the other place who have done enormously rich and deep things for people in need. But how do you take that as part of a social apparatus and put prevention in front of it? How do you put cure at the end of it?

Forty per cent of all money spent by His Majesty’s Government is spent on poverty. I am sorry—I repeat these things often, and people say to me, “You told us that the last time”, but I am going to tell you it the next time as well. Forty per cent of the money spent by government is spent on poverty—yet, if you look at the intervention of this Government, the last Government and presumably the next Government, there will be a bit here, a bit there, and a bit here and a bit there. There is no convergence; there is no joining together the strengths that we need to defeat poverty. According to the BMA, 50% of the people who present themselves with cardiac arrests are people suffering from food poverty. The emergency work that we need to do is to respond to the emergency and, at the same time, make sure that we are not increasing it by allowing people to slip into poverty.

I have a Bill going through the House that will go nowhere—absolutely nowhere. No one is interested in it. Whenever I talk to a politician of whatever party, or to the aspirant ones who stop me in Portcullis House and talk to me kindly about what they are going to do when they get in office—I presume it was not your lot, because you are already there—they say that they are going to do all sorts of wonderful things about poverty. But if they use the same mechanisms and devices that are being used at the moment, they will not be going anywhere.

Before Tony Blair came in, I remember having discussions with him, and I thought he was one of the most impressive personal managers that I had ever met. He made me feel really important, and he told me all the wonderful things he was going to do. I am not slagging him off—this is not a party-political thing. He was going to do big things about getting rid of homelessness. What he did was to open the gates of the Treasury to lots of homeless organisations, which went from this size to that size. People built lots more temporary accommodation—hostels and all sorts of things like that—and they thought it was a wonderful thing. But, unfortunately, it was still about “them” and “us”, meaning “us” who run the system and “them” who receive our beneficence. That is one of the major problems that we need to deal with.

My Bill calls for the creation of a ministry for poverty prevention. Why does it do that? It does so because, if poverty eats into the aspirations and ambitions of virtually every government department, how can the NHS really deliver, and how can schools really deliver, when about 30% of their budget is spent on dealing with the problems of poverty that are vectored into the classroom? What can the Ministry of Justice do, other than tread water and make sure that somebody does not escape, kill themselves or kill a guard? Why do we create these ministries and then deprive them of the opportunity of supplying change, justice and social justice, because poverty eats away at and destroys their work?

In my opinion, we need a Ministry of Justice prevention. I have spoken to lots of people, and they say, “Well, we could all do with a ministry—you could have a ministry for everything”. But the thing about poverty is that it gets into our pores and, in my opinion, it makes us lost and, to some extent, dishonest. We think that, if we can just give a handout to someone, we have changed things and done our bit. Thank you very much—God bless you all.