Sunday, September 24, 2006

"Radical not punitive"

I have to confess that I thought that the fringe meeting about tackling poverty through welfare reform would be one to endure rather than enjoy. It turned out to be thought-provoking and interesting.

It was organised by One Parent Families, and John Hutton and Carey Oppenheim of the London Child Poverty Commission were speaking. Their speeches were mostly about how helping people into work was the best way of reducing child poverty and examples of different pilot projects which could help with this and with particular problems like people being worse off in work than on benefit particularly because of the cost of renting. They also made the point that for very many people being a lone parent was a stage in people's lives, lasting on average about five years, and that new policies needed to be 'radical not punitive', and people needed to be supported to take risks and not be dependent.

This was all reasonably familiar, but the discussion afterwards was the highlight of the meeting, with interesting questions and the speakers being prepared for the most part to engage with the questions and give thoughtful answers. The questions included the possibility of an extra amount on tax credits for people living in London, the need to consider the needs of children and not just their parents when deciding on policies to reform welfare, the need for more support during the first 3-6 months of a new job for people who haven't had a job for a long time, the need to improve opportunities for childcare. The most impressive contribution was from a woman (a delegate from her CLP) who had been a lone parent in the early 1980's and had suffered from policies which were a mix of Old Labour and Thatcherism which acted to make it very hard to get a job after being out of work, how the current situation had improved a lot from then, and also raising the issue of how debt and loan sharks harmed lone parents and people in poverty massively.

My question was about how many lone parents feel that the challenges that they face and the hard work that they do is not appreciated by government and decision-makers, and that they aren't involved in deciding what policies to help them should be adopted. I asked if the speakers agreed this was a problem and what could be done about it.

The answers were interesting (necessarily brief because it was a relatively short meeting with a lot packed into it). Carey thought that the best solution for the problem was through devolution of services, with people being involved in deciding on how the services that affected them worked. John replied by saying that there was definitely more to be done to emphasise the central role that caring for people played in our society - caring for children was one of the most important things that anyone did and that this needed to be better recognised. He suggested that the reforms in pensions, designed to recognise not just people's financial contributions but also their caring contributions (i.e. those who didn't work to look after children), provided a possible for model for how other areas of government and policies could be redesigned to give greater emphasis to the importance of caring for others.

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