Poverty Reduction - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:22 pm on 22 February 2024.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Baroness Burt of Solihull Baroness Burt of Solihull Liberal Democrat 1:22, 22 February 2024

My Lords, I am quite overwhelmed by the noble Lord, Lord Bird, and his very inspirational speech, and I thank him. Poverty is not a subject on which I normally speak, so this has been a real eye-opener for me and I have learned a lot. I also welcome the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Hereford. His exposition of rural poverty bodes very well for the contribution that he will make to this House. I also bid farewell to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham and thank him for all the work that he has done in this House.

I looked up definitions of poverty to try to make sure that I knew what I would be talking about. We all have an idea of what we think poverty is, and the government measures of poverty fall into several categories, but they seem to be a relative low income and an absolute low income, and they are all linked to the median income of people in our society. It rankles me that anyone can be defined by their poverty. I thought the concept from the noble Lord, Lord Desai, was very interesting, although I know that it is much more complicated than any of us wants to go into today, but it was a useful thing to say that, above this income, you cannot be defined by your poverty.

A wider definition, which I like, is from the European Commission:

“People are said to be living in poverty if their income and resources are so inadequate as to preclude them from having a standard of living considered acceptable in the society in which they live”.

I suspect that the noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza, would heartily agree with that, and the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, would also be involved—I cannot refer to her without saying Martha; it is weird. She spoke very coherently and passionately about the importance of communication: if you do not have access to broadband or a mobile phone, that is very significant. How can you then participate in a world that is ruled by these communications? Most people in Britain would consider these to be essentials above the poverty line, and I totally agree.

As well as relatively low and absolutely low income, there is another category that has been discussed today, and that is destitution. It is defined by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation as when people have been unable to afford two or more of the following essentials, in the past month: shelter, food, heating, lighting, clothing and footwear, basic toiletries or a net income after housing of less than £95 a week.

We have heard plenty of horror stories about the number of working poor and children in poverty. The only good-news story is that the least likely demographic to be in poverty is now pensioners, who were once the most likely. That just goes to show what government policy can achieve, given the will.

Sadly, the divide between the haves and the have-nots is getting wider, not narrower. We are in a vicious downward spiral. To transform it to a virtuous upward spiral, we need investment in the most important assets for any Government to have—their human resources. We have heard plenty of excellent suggestions in this debate, as well as stark reminders of the consequences of not implementing them.

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation suggests five key ways that the UK could tackle poverty. These are: to boost incomes and reduce costs by ending the poverty premium; to reboot universal credit to ensure that work pays and provide a stronger safety net for those people who are just about managing but are tipped over into poverty by events as simple as a broken boiler; to improve educational attainment and double investment in basic skills to ensure that 5 million more adults are literate and have basic maths skills; to overhaul the childcare system, giving children a better start in life and making work pay for their parents; to back employers and, following the speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, focus on investment in the long term and not the short term.

There is also the issue of decent and affordable housing, and I would focus on health as well. My noble friend did so with great explanation, as did the noble Lord, Lord Desai. If you are sitting on a 7.5 million-long patient waiting list for treatment, how can you focus on anything else? The downward spiral in our nation will not stop until we do these kinds of things.

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation has calculated that the total cost of poverty is approximately £78 billion a year—about £1 in every £5 that we spend on social services. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Bird, has a different figure, but it depends on what you add in. It is certainly one of the most important, damaging areas that we need to consider. There is an equation of investment to reward which multiplies the benefits to society exponentially, the longer that it is applied. It is so short-sighted not to invest in our people.

The downward spiral we are in today does not even take account of the social costs, which the Joseph Rowntree Foundation says are causing “widespread damage to society” and are a source of

“collective shame, social tension and anxiety”.

I do not know about noble Lords, but I do not want to live in a world like this. Unless we value our people and give them the resources and opportunities they need to be productive and to realise their potential, we are all impoverished, as the noble Lord, Lord Bird, said.

I feel that shame, in response to the words of the noble Lord, Lord Bird—at how little I and so many of us in this House prioritise this issue. If we can put more emphasis on it, we can do it. We have done it with pensioners; they are not poor any more. But there are many different groups that we, and particularly the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, have talked about. We need to work together, and I hope that this will kick-start something. We can do so much better in looking after our people, so that we live in a happier society that we can all appreciate and enjoy.