No more talk: let's just put an end to poverty

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The Independent Online
Today I am back at work, on the same day Tony Blair returns to Downing Street. Like him, I have spent three weeks among olive groves, fig trees, piazzas and cathedrals where it is easy to forget that we holiday in Italian or French equivalents of the Cotswolds, as far from the housing estates of Turin, Marseilles or Naples as Bourton-on-the-Water is from Sunderland. But that's what holidays are for - brief respites from reality.

I return to a desk piled high with reports about poverty, in one form or another. The hyper-industrious research industry has gone into overdrive this year, drowning the Government with every kind of statistic. Who are the poor? How many? What is it to be poor? Do they move in and out of poverty? How many are stuck for ever? What becomes of their children? How many commit crimes? What can be done? What works?

Yesterday, launching a campaign to strike at the roots of crime, the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders (Nacro) published a report showing, yet again, how young criminals spring mainly from catastrophic families. Poor, hopeless, helpless, uncaring, despairing, mad or bad parents from hell breed infant demons. Surprised? John Humphrys on the Today programme started his interview almost with a yawn: "But that's obvious, isn't it?" Of course it is. Blindingly.

I wade through the other research that has been pouring out in my absence: "Income Mobility in Britain" (very little: in or out of work the poor stay in the lowest brackets). "Disadvantaged Children at Greater Risk of Adult Mental Health Problems" (well, fancy that) and many other less than earth-shattering revelations. Only a month ago Bristol University's Breadline Britain research showed how an extra 3.5 million people have become poor in the past 15 years, making a total of 11 million.

In Tony Blair's absence, Peter Mandelson announced a new "Social Exclusion Unit" set up within Downing Street. (Social exclusion is Euro-speak: countries can't agree what poverty is, but this nebulous, polite phrase covers anyone who is, well, you know, sort of left out, without a job, or a bus fare, or a holiday - in other words, poor.) Mandelson spoke of Blair's "rock-hard determination to tackle social ills and the economic causes of social exclusion" and pledged that in 10 years "Britain will be a more equal society".

Now that he is back, the Prime Minister will have to spell out what exactly his unit will do. To be sure, getting all departments to work together is crucial. But, even more important, nothing can be done without more money.

Maybe it's the effect of a long, luxurious holiday, but returning to all this poverty research, I am brought up short again by the way we all live. How do we manage to be so complacent, living cheek by jowl with mounting deprivation on our doorsteps? Will Blair's long holiday have the same effect on him? If I believed in a day of judgement (as he does), I wouldn't know what we should all say to justify ourselves. Excuses would stick in the throat. For we know exactly what and where the problems are.

All this research tells us over and over again what can be done. The poor need not always be with us (or only a fraction of their present numbers).

We were brought up on history books that told of the onward march of social progress, reforms, factory and education acts, a story of inevitable, unstoppable social improvement. The teaching of history from 1800 judged civilisation on progress for the poorest. No more boys up chimneys, no more women hauling coal trucks down mines. But then history stopped. In the past 18 years it has even reversed. The DSS itself reported that the income of the bottom 10 per cent decreased by 17 per cent between 1979 and 1992. When I was young, in 1964, the first general election I can remember, I believed without a doubt in inevitable progress. Now, instead, the gap has widened. Can Labour kick-start history again?

Let the Social Exclusion Unit do no more research. Let them think up no more clever ideas. Let them not spend long, dreary interdepartmental hours squabbling over structures centrally, and structures locally. Let no new wheels be invented; stop the consultation documents; silence the policy wonks. We know all we need to know.

Take yesterday's Nacro report as just one programme that could be implemented tomorrow - with money. Delinquency springs mainly from disaster families in the poorest neighbourhoods. Social services usually know the children, but nothing gets done. The report describes family schemes run by voluntary organisations that help mothers at the end of their tether, teaching them how to bring up their children. Research shows that many of the children are saved from going into care, but such schemes are few and far between.

For lack of that early support, 50,000 children are in care every year. They grow up to fill 25 per cent of prison cells. Why do we let them slip through our hands? There is virtually no treatment for these most damaged children, or any education, and they are cared for by the least qualified people. The Social Exclusion Unit could start with them.

There is a comfortable view that poverty is intractable: that the feckless and dysfunctional are beyond help. But among all this voluminous research on my desk there is all the evidence to the contrary.

Tony Blair goes back into Downing Street this morning with very little of the shine rubbed off. Now his rock-hard determination to make Britain more equal means his Social Exclusion Unit needs to start at once. Most of all, there needs to be money. How can that be found? In the end, only with public will. The people need to be persuaded that money well spent can make a real difference to the way we all live. At its lowest, projects to help the poor means fewer young criminals in 10 years' time. They mean ending the dead weight of the poor carried by all taxpayers. At its loftiest, Blair needs to keep hammering out the One Nation message of his powerful speech on that Southwark housing estate.

Individually, if we felt genuinely guilty about the poor we could give our money away voluntarily. But in the end it is far better for a government to do the right thing, imposing goodness and efficiency on us all fairly, with our consent. There is nothing wrong with tax and spend, but now Labour has to start to persuade the people that more tax would be fair and spending thrifty, and that the result would be a better-functioning society.