Election '97: Poverty begging to go on political agenda

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The Independent Online
In the hope of getting poverty on to the political agenda, two pressure groups yesterday issued election briefings criticising the Conservatives for the extent of inequality and low incomes in Britain.

But they had scant praise for the policies proposed by Labour and the Liberal Democrats. One claimed Labour thought welfare was undesirable, while the other warned that a minimum wage set at too high a level would cost jobs, while at a sensible level it would do little to help the low- paid.

The Child Poverty Action Group accused Conservative governments since 1979 of a "pro-active strategy of inequality". It conceded that the blame for increasing poverty could not be laid entirely at the Government's door, but said there had been nothing inevitable about inequality increasing dramatically more in Britain than other countries.

The CPAG also noted that public opinion favoured more spending on universal benefits such as health and education but had moved against paying higher taxes to benefit the very poorest people.

The view that the tax burden ought to fall is "a political, not economic, imperative," according to the report. It noted that Tony Blair had spoken of the need to eliminate "the social evil of welfare dependency".

A separate report from the Employment Policy Institute concluded there had been merit in the Conservatives' policies to make the jobs market more flexible but said Britain was still unable to sustain full employment without triggering inflation.

Without a fresh approach to the people at the bottom end of the jobs market, there was a risk of severe social harm for little economic gain, it argued. With nearly one in five non-pensioner households having nobody in work, cheap solutions would only create more incentives for crime and anti-social behaviour.

Both reports catalogue the grim extent of low income and insecurity. The proportion of the population living in poverty has climbed from 9 per cent in 1979 to 25 per cent in 1993/94, according to the CPAG. In the same year nearly a third of households had at least one person claiming an income-related benefit. Privatisation and changes in education and housing policy, with tax and benefit changes, have tended to increase inequality.

According to the EPI, one in five families with children has no member in work. There are 840,000 people who have been unemployed and looking for work for more than a year.

Its report praised the Labour and Liberal Democrat manifestos for proposals to retrain the unemployed and improve work incentives. But it warned that too high a minimum wage would harm the very people it was supposed to help. Above pounds 3.75 an hour it would cost jobs, while below that it would do little to increase incomes or work incentives for the working poor.

In addition, the EPI warned that there was no cheap solution to long- term unemployment and poverty. An effective welfare-to-work package would end up costing far more than either Labour or the Lib Dems were suggesting.