Election briefing: Why isn’t poverty a top priority for political parties?

Image courtesy of Salvation Army

By Lianne Kolirin

Tackling poverty is not seen as a top priority by political parties canvassing for public votes, according to campaigners working to combat economic hardship.

Representatives of faith groups and community bodies took part in an online discussion about poverty, political attitudes towards it and how faith groups are responding to the situation.

The online briefing, hosted by the Religion Media Centre, was the third in a series focusing on how religion is part of the overall general election story.

Mick Ord, a journalist who hosted the session, asked guests for their views on “an issue which has been barely touched upon over the past few weeks in the media, even though all the polls show us that it’s one of the three burning issues in voters’ minds, along with the NHS and immigration”.

Echoing that was Paul Morrison, policy adviser at the Joint Public Issues Team which represents several free churches. “Poverty has not been an issue in this election — it has not been given the emphasis that it deserves,” he said. The problem had taken on another dimension over the past decade and a half.

“It’s the depth of poverty that is now becoming deeply problematic,” he said. People were accessing services but these often proved inadequate. “They are just insufficient to provide the essentials people need, never mind put them on a platform to begin that journey out of poverty — and that is holding back so much potential,” he added.

Perception of political indifference is being felt at the grass roots, according to Hannah Fremont-Brown, co-ordinator of the Methodist Church’s Let’s End Poverty movement.

“Over the past few months, we’ve been having conversations with people across the UK and church-based and community groups about the issues that matter to them, and when we’ve spoken to people in Sheffield, Epsom, Halifax, Stoke, Camden and lots of other places, the recurring theme has been that people who are at the sharpest end of poverty don’t feel heard by our political leaders or hopeful as we approach this election,” she said.

“They want political leaders to listen to the reality of the challenges they’re facing … and to include them in decision-making to reform the system that has the potential to improve their lives dramatically.

“Our aim is to amplify their voices during this election debate because we believe that closing the gap — between people who are struggling against poverty and people with decision-making power — is the key to finding solutions that are fair, that are just and that will last to solve this problem.”

Others agreed that more of a voice should be given to those affected. Gareth McNab, of Christians Against Poverty, said poverty was a result of political decisions. “If together we agree poverty is not something we wish for 14½ million of our brothers and sisters in British society, then we could and should make different choices as an economy and a society,” he said.

The three elements of poverty must be examined: resources, stigma and public services. “We’re probably likely to find the right kind of outcome when we listen more carefully to the lives of people who actually experience poverty,” he added.

George Lapshynov of political think tank Theos said his organisation’s research revealed that an overwhelming majority of people cared about this issue. “Ninety-two per cent of the total population and 88 per cent of Christians in the UK think the current government has poorly managed the cost-of-living crisis,” he said. “This is a very significant consensus on the economic question, and it’s a sign of how bad the situation is.”

Stephen Bediako, a social entrepreneur appointed OBE for innovation in charity and social enterprise, believes poverty requires a massive rethink by the new government.

“We really need to reimagine the way we approach understanding poverty,” he said. “We need government to invest and understand not only the impact of alleviating poverty, but also the connection it then has to happiness, productivity, mental health.”

But welfare support and benefits were not enough. “We also need to really think about what I call fair wealth creation,” he said. “[It’s the] idea that a lot of charity work should be geared towards supporting people to gain ownership, build enterprise and basically share wealth among the population.”

Mudaser Ali, head of development at the Muslim Charities Forum, said: “Many Muslim-led organisations are at the forefront of tackling poverty, and as their infrastructure body we have the privilege of learning more about some of the challenges they’re facing and also what we can do to help.”

One such challenge is temporary accommodation where “Muslim communities and other minoritised communities” are often “over-represented”, he said, adding that these people often lived “at the fringe of homelessness”.

Policy should take into account race, religion and other protected characteristics. “I would like to see the government commit to high-impact strategic interventions at some of the root causes of poverty and ensure that minority communities’ voices are represented in those,” he said.

One issue that seemed to unite the panellists was the desire to see the two-children cap on benefits scrapped.

“A lot of us would say that eradicating the two-child limit would be one of the single most effective ways of lifting the most children out of poverty,” Ms Fremont-Brown said. “We have far too many children in the UK, not only living in poverty, but living in destitution, which is and should be unthinkable for us as a society.”

Bartek Staniszewski, senior research fellow at the Bright Blue think tank, said the cap was in sharp contrast with other countries where bigger families were rewarded with more benefits. “We are now facing a demographic crisis whereby we’re getting more and more old people in this country and fewer and fewer young people. We are not having children at the replacement rate.”

This would become an unaffordable burden on the state, he said, and put greater pressure on government spending. One way to ease that would be to remove the cap and encourage higher birth rates, he added.

Josh Nicholson, senior researcher at the centre-right think tank the Centre for Social Justice, suggested that policy should not just consider the number of children in a household but their age. “We know through our own research that children under the age of four are more likely to live in poverty,” he said.

“So we’re proposing that child benefit gets front-loaded at age zero to four, which would give a huge financial boost to families,” he said as well as a range of other measures. Really focusing on age might be the more productive policy here and looking at how we can really support children in those early years.”

The older generation must not be forgotten, said Phil Callaghan, northwest church engagement manager for the Trussell Trust, which supports 1,200 food banks across Britain.

“It can be a mistake to separate different parts of the community and focus on the poverty that exists within them,” he said. “We know child poverty is an absolute scar in our society and at Trussell we’re really, really concerned about the numbers of parcels we give out to families with young children.”

The trust has also seen a 27 per cent rise in over-65s using food banks. “So it goes to show that the deep poverty and destitution is really prevalent across our society, across the demographic, and we need to talk about that in a sort of whole community issue,” he said.

Politicians are fond of pledging to keep taxes down, but perhaps the only way to eradicate poverty is through raising them, said Bishop Mike Royal, general secretary of Churches Together in England. “Giving really is at the heart of common good and a flourishing society,” he said. “And taxes, of course, are absolutely important for health, for education and for all the issues we’ve been talking about.

“The problem is that the way that debate has been framed in this election is a race to the bottom — who will give the least taxes and trying to catch different parties out on how much they’re going to be taxing people. But we know that some of the happiest nations in the world are nations that are much more heavily taxed than us. What that has resulted in is much better public services,” he said.

One piece of advice for the new government is to engage in more effective partnership with faith communities.

Phil Champain, director of The Faith & Belief Forum, told the panel about an open letter his organisation has addressed to the incoming government.

“The message is for an incoming government to be more proactive in engaging with faith and belief groups around policy issues such as this,” he said. “Because I think in the past, there’s been a kind of sticking-plaster approach — that faith and belief groups have been seen to bind the wounds, rather than being seen as a sort of proactive partner in policy development.

“So we think this is a really timely moment for government to engage with a lot of organisations around the table for policy development around poverty alleviation. We’ve seen their capacity, we’ve seen the values they bring and we want to see a much more proactive engagement with the sector.”

View the briefing on YouTube here


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