Earning a wage is not the only way to escape poverty

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NEW LABOUR'S war against poverty received its first innovatory blast when Tony Blair and Gordon Brown joined those sultans of the sitting room, Richard and Judy, on Tuesday to discuss, on morning television, the new Working Family Tax Credit (WFTC). It should, in theory, lift 1.5 million families, including some 800,000 children, out of acute poverty and guarantee a minimum weekly income of pounds 200. "You will be better off..." a jovial Mr Brown insisted.

The WFTC is the first part of a rolling programme. Families without work will be offered still more support in the autumn and the Treasury will announce increased spending on education next summer. By the next election, some families will be more than pounds 700 a year better off. "We now have the right framework in place by which we can make adjustments in future," announced an official. "We have a framework for tackling poverty for those in work and those who want to work..."

The rhetoric, the policy, the recognition that government cannot abandon the issue of poverty to market forces alone - all are highly admirable. We also know that Mr Brown and Mr Blair have a great regard for paid work because of its redemptive qualities. But if work is to be the answer to the growing chasm between Britain's better off and those on the breadline - it isn't just the churlish who are beginning to wonder if the right questions are being asked.

Peter Moss, Professor of Early Childhood Provision at the University of London and co-founder of the newly established Work-Life Research Centre, is among those who criticise this "action before adequate analysis". "Of course, there's a political requirement to be seen doing something," he says. "But it doesn't always help, in the long term, to provide answers before we've seriously had time to examine what is actually going on... we have to understand that we operate in the context of forces which do not share identical interests and values and, between which, there are tensions... not least the forces of production and reproduction."

Yesterday, The Independent, gave an example of how WFTC, plus government help with childcare, would allegedly help Sophie Bates, a lone parent and mother of two. Her case neatly illustrates how much more complex the framework for tackling poverty has to be than that which is now on offer. Ms Bates, on pounds 39 a week benefit, estimates she will be pounds 80 a week better off once she can take an pounds 8,000-a-year job as a nursing assistant. Working full time, coping with children and childcare, she will still only bring home pounds 130 a week. So, if work, WFTC and childcare aren't sufficient to lift her off the breadline - what else is required in the long term?

What has been missing from New Labour's hurriedly arrived at Big Picture so far, is how what Professor Moss calls "the wicked issues" impact negatively on New Labour's present strategy. He lists those issues as: "Time, gender and the value of care."

Sophie Bates has opted for a job in a caring profession. The majority of employees in this sector are female and, because of that tradition, the pay is low. So, even though she'll hold down a full-time job, she will still fail to attain the Government's twin aims of "economic prosperity and social justice". A massive pay rise, of course, would make a difference - but that's unlikely. Instead, the Government needs to think laterally. For instance, Norway has a target of 20 per cent of posts caring for under- fives to be filled by men by the year 2001. In Britain, however, the issues of gender and the value of caring aren't even yet a prominent part of the debate.

Sophie Bates is also unqualified. Eight out of 10 mothers with degrees are in work compared to only four out of 10 women without qualifications. Once Mr Blair's moral and economic crusade is under way, however, it will become more and more difficult for any mother to resist the, sometimes fallacious, message that the parent at home is not doing her (or his) best by the child. She must be out earning a wage. The unqualified woman is likely to find only low paid, insecure work, with few prospects for promotion or training. Only one in three employees, for instance, receive any training in any given year - and employees are reluctant to change their ways.

An effective framework for tackling poverty demands a proper partnership between government, the individual and, crucially, employers. A three- legged stool that exists in the rest of Europe. So far, New Labour has proved ridiculously to push employers at all - making a mockery of Mr Mr Blair's call for a new moral consensus. Or are the bosses to be exempt?

Margaret Hodge, the Education minister, has explained, that the Government believes in "a light touch" when it comes to persuading the captains of industry to change employment practices. Hence, three months paternity leave - but unpaid. Hence, the Working Time Directive, attempting to limit the week to 48 hours - but with employers exempted from keeping a written record. Last month too, a new survey boasted of a benefits "boom" for British employees. It showed, for instance, an eightfold increase within a decade of firms offering help with childcare. A miracle? Hardly, since it brings the grand total up to a derisory 16 per cent of all firms. "Making work pay," Mr Blair kept repeating on TV - but pay for whom?

"Family friendly policies" in the poorly paid section of the workplace, often translate into a flexibility which means compulsorily working long and awkward hours. Adding to money in the purse, no doubt, but at what cost to relationships with children, a partner and one's health? Access to work alone won't help the poor - their time outside work, as parents and carers too, should be valued at a premium. The unions no longer have the clout - so it is up to government to take a lead, initiate tougher legislation, speak in a strong voice, and make the economic and moral case.

"At a time when business values predominate," Professor Moss warns, "there is a risk that social values, family relationships, caring, and those who are not economically active, may become devalued and reduced to supply- side factors, hindrances to competitiveness and productivity which need to be tackled. The only show in town is the business case and everything has to be fitted into that case...."

If the battle against poverty is for the sake of the children - then New Labour has to recognise that when it promises "you will be better off" it is more than just money that it has to deliver.