First there was Brexit, then a pandemic, then multiple changes of Prime Minister and now a rapidly approaching election.
None of this provides a stable platform on which to build a national public service reform agenda. The fact that most of the media (most, not all!) firmly focuses on the latest crisis at the expense of giving the slower progress of reform the attention it deserves means that many national politicians have taken their eye off the wider reform agenda.
Whilst local government has been working hard to keep services running and improving what they can, the impact of the lack of drive from the centre (in our still highly centralised system) is that public services have fallen further out of sync with the needs of the public, particularly the most vulnerable.
The need for an urgent refocusing on public service reform has been crystalised in a new report from the Poverty Strategy Commission, Chaired by Baroness Philippa Stroud, entitled ‘A new framework for tackling poverty’. I am one of the Commissioners on this independent group with cross-party representation and have found the experience enlightening but ultimately, its findings are extremely worrying. The light at the end of the tunnel is that I am sure we are gaining a much better understanding of the underlying causes of poverty and how to 'move the dial' in a sustainable way.
The most difficult statistic to swallow is that poverty levels in the UK have sat between 21% and 24% since the early 2000s despite efforts (including significant spending) from governments of all colours. Even in areas where some progress had been made it is falling back. Pensioner poverty had reduced from 18% in 2000-01 to 9% in 2014-15 but has crept back up to 12% in 2019-20. Similarly, lone parent poverty rates had fallen from 61% (yes really!) in 2000-01 to just under half in 2013-14, progress has stalled and is now back up to 52%.
What can we do about it?
The interim report starts to set out a framework for understanding and tackling poverty with research showing that making headway requires a wider focus than just income levels. Financial resilience, improved mental and physical health, better qualifications, more stable families, stronger communities and better labour market opportunities are all important. It won’t have escaped your attention that all of these are what you would expect to be anticipated outcomes from a public service reform agenda. But it shouldn’t and can’t all be on the public sector’s shoulders.
Whilst central government has real responsibilities, a lot of the levers needed to support a family or an individual out of poverty sit at a local level through the work of councils, Mayoral Combined Authorities and through civic society and local businesses. These groups rarely engage in properly co-ordinated action to solve a problem (save some excellent local examples from the pandemic). But it’s pretty clear that we will need all of these groups to have a shared understanding of the problem and a clear understanding of their role in solving it if things are to change. Part of the challenge for current and future governments is to enable everyone to work together to do their bit.
There are some useful hypothetical interventions and impacts in the report which provide policy makers in all parties with figures on which to start to plan manifesto ideas e.g.:
- Increasing earnings by 5% for people in poverty would mean the number in poverty falls by 515,000;
- Increasing benefit awards by 5% for people in poverty could see a reduction of 725,000 people in poverty;
- Ensuring that people build up savings buffers before they are in poverty could reduce the numbers in poverty by 415,000;
- Lowering housing costs by 5% for people in poverty could reduce poverty numbers by 355,000; and,
- Ensuring that everyone in poverty has at least some basic formal qualifications could reduce the number of those in poverty by 115,000.
The report makes a helpful distinction between poverty and deep poverty (i.e. more than 50% below the poverty line) which should serve to reduce the attractiveness of policy 'quick fixes' aiming to nudge people just above a certain line and hopefully focus minds on longer term sustainable changes.
I’m sure most people reading this article will agree that it is high time we refocused on public service reform and I hope this report from the Poverty Strategy Commission provides some impetus for policy makers at all levels.
Andrew Laird is chief executive of public services consultancy Mutual Ventures and a Commissioner on the Poverty Strategy Commission