Lilley rejects call to fight UK poverty

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The Independent Online
Peter Lilley, the Secretary of State for Social Security, has told welfare campaigners that Britain has no need for measures to tackle poverty. News of his views emerged yesterday as the Child Poverty Action Group reported that a quarter of the population - 13 to 14 million people - were living on less than half the average income.

Mr Lilley's comments, in a letter to welfare campaigners, are a direct snub to the United Nations, which has declared 1996 "international year for the eradication of poverty".

The minister said the Government would not be implementing a national poverty eradication plan, agreed by countries including Britain last year at the UN summit on social development. He wrote: "It is our view that the recommendations... principally relate to the needs of underdeveloped countries, which need to harness their economies to achieve basic goals." These, according to Mr Lilley, included the provision of clean water and adequate food supplies. "The UK [has] the infrastructure and social protection systems to prevent poverty and maintain living standards."

The letter was sent after 18 anti-poverty groups supporting the UN scheme wrote to the Government asking how Britain was fulfilling its commitment to the initiative.

A Department of Social Security spokeswoman said last night that she could not comment on reports that Mr Lilley said Britain's population was not in need of help because most had central heating; almost half had a car; three in four had a telephone and more than half had a video recorder.

But the letter is thought by welfare campaign groups to be particularly insensitive, coming as it does on the heels of the Child Poverty Action Group report. CPAG's figure for the number of people living on less than half the average wage is more than double the number in 1979: one in three children is growing up in poverty, while living standards of the poor and affluent are "marching in opposite directions" the pressure group said in its latest handbook, Poverty: The Facts.

From 1979 to 1992/3, the real income, after housing costs, of the poorest tenth fell by 18 per cent, while the richest tenth enjoyed a "staggering" 61-per- cent increase. Britain saw a sharper rise in inequality than any developed country except New Zealand.

Far from wealth trickling down from the rich to the poor, figures from the Government's own Economic Trends survey show household income has filtered up from the poorest sections of society to the richer ones, the CPAG said.

Even after redistribution by taxes and benefits, the poorest fifth saw their share fall from 9.5 per cent in 1979 to 6.6 per cent, while the share of the richest fifth has gone from 37 per cent to 44 per cent.

The report calls for fairer taxation, including a more progressive structure, to improve benefits for the poor, warning that policies which encourage privatisation of parts of the social security system and the means-testing of much of the remainder would "result in a general reluctance to finance social welfare"and "the blunting of individual aspirations."

All that is lacking to tackle the widening gap between the better off and the least well off is "an absence of political will" Sally Witcher, CPAG's Director said.