While politicians bicker over self-serving definitions of poverty, a simple measure of ‘need’ is being overlooked

The obvious place to start is with the consumption of food

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The Independent Online

Politicians try to define poverty in ways that suit them. Don’t think for one minute that they are engaged in erudite discussions of statistical truth. As an example, see the article that George Osborne, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and Iain Duncan Smith, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, wrote together yesterday, which I will come to later.

Thus the last Labour government took as its measure the number of people whose incomes were less than 60 per cent of the average. By this calculation, upwards of a fifth of households were in poverty. But however high that average were to climb, there must always be many people whose incomes would fall below the 60 per cent mark. In other words, Labour wanted to make sure that the famous phrase from the Bible – “ye have the poor always with you” – would be literally true. Naturally. For the “poor” are one of Labour’s constituencies. They didn’t want to wish them away.

Conservative ministers, on the other hand, seek to show that the poor are at least partly to blame for their own predicament. It’s not the Government’s fault but poor people themselves! So Messrs Osborne and Duncan Smith want measures that, I quote, “recognise the root causes of poverty: entrenched worklessness, family breakdown, problem debt, drug and alcohol dependency”.

What doesn’t fit in with this list, however, is a new and shocking phenomenon. You can have a job and still be poor. This was revealed by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s annual survey. It showed that more than half the people in poverty in the UK (on the Labour definition) are found in families “where someone works”. Now, Conservative politicians do not like the sound of this. For it suggests that the market system itself is malfunctioning, so best to keep silent.

In considering how best to measure poverty, I like the way the Chilean economist Manfred Max Neef puts it. He argues that needs are “finite, few and classifiable”, as distinct from the notion of “wants” that are infinite and insatiable. So the obvious place to start is with the consumption of food itself. In November, the respected Institute for Fiscal Studies reported that comparing the years before the recession (2005-07) with 2010-12, households on average reduced real expenditure on food brought into the home by 8.5 per cent and reduced calories purchased by 3.6 per cent. Households with young children made the sharpest reductions in their food intake. It would also be worth keeping an eye on trends in malnutrition. The number of cases treated at NHS hospitals, for instance, has nearly doubled since the onset of recession. There were 5,499 cases last year.

Concentrating on needs that are finite, few and classifiable, I would then look at measures of affordable accommodation. How many people are falling behind with rent and mortgage payments? What is the trend in repossessions? How many households are waiting for social housing? What do statistics for overcrowding show?

Then I would turn to measuring levels of personal debt. A recent survey has shown that in a scenario where rates rise gently to 3 per cent by 2018 – still far below their historic average – some 1.12 million people would be spending more than half of their take-home pay on debt repayments. That is the widely accepted yardstick for indebtedness. Another report says the average debt repayments of people in the poorest 10 per cent of households are nearly half of their gross monthly income.

Finally, I believe we should measure to what extent the Government itself creates poverty by the inefficient way in which the welfare system is run. I am thinking here of the speed with which requests are handled and of the promptness of payments that are due. Take an example highlighted by the National Audit Office. It concerns the new personal independence payment, which is a non-means-tested benefit being brought in by the Department for Work and Pensions to help disabled people.

These are some of the most vulnerable people in society. Yet the National Audit Office found that claims from the most deserving of all, that is terminally ill claimants, took an average of 28 days to process, against the department’s working assumption of 10 days. Think of the agony that this 18-day delay in making welfare payments must cause the terminally ill and their families. What do they do to bridge the gap – borrow from friends or from payday lenders, eat a little less? Only when the welfare system is efficiently and fairly run will government ministers have earned the right even to think of criticising the poor or those who care about their predicament.

We feted de Gaulle once, and he still said ‘non’

I don’t want to spoil the party, but the British government’s record of changing the minds of foreign leaders by arranging a spectacular visit to London is not very good. Yesterday, it was the turn of the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel. So the Prime Minister, David Cameron, arranged that she should address both Houses of Parliament. And, then, perhaps the pièce de résistance, she would have tea with the Queen.

In 1960, Cameron’s predecessor, Harold Macmillan, tried the same gambit with General de Gaulle. He arranged a three-day state visit with “maximum splendour” in the hope of winning the French President over to supporting British entry into the Common Market. That time, too, the Queen had the most important role to play because the general had spent many months in London during the war. He did not always get on with Churchill. Indeed, he once complained that he was kept so much a prisoner in London that he might as well have been locked up in the camp for enemy aliens on the Isle of Man (to which Churchill responded: “No, you are very distinguished, and so would go to the Tower of London!”). However, the general had only happy memories of the “most precious encouragements” he had received from the Royal Family during the war. At the Buckingham Palace banquet, with great crosses of Lorraine blazing in fireworks outside, he asked: “Where else, Madam, better than in your presence, could I bear witness to my gratitude.” On another evening, a gala performance was given for him at the Royal Opera House, decorated with 25,000 carnations.

Then the general went home and vetoed British participation in the Common Market. “Non!”