Monitoring poverty and social exclusion: what works and what doesn't work
The 2008 'Monitoring Poverty and Social Exclusion' report is highly recommended, and can be read here.
The New Policy Institute and Joseph Rowntree Foundation have taken fifty six different indicators about poverty and social exclusion and tracked how they have changed, year-by-year. It is, therefore, a good measure of the government's successes and failures.
The authors compare progress over the first five years (1998-2003) and the last five years (2003-8). While this is a useful exercise to see where progress has been sustained, stalled, or been reversed, it is an arbitrary cut off point, as there was no drastic change in anti-poverty policies in 2003.
So to supplement their analysis, it is interesting to look at those indicators which are the responsibility of the Department for Work and Pensions, and to use the cut off point as September 2004. The DWP is, after all, the government department which spends the largest amount of money on trying to reduce poverty.
Between 1998 and 2004, the DWP and its predecessor, the Department for Social Security, were headed by Alastair Darling and Andrew Smith, key allies of Gordon Brown. In September 2004, Andrew Smith resigned and control over the DWP passed to a series of supporters of Tony Blair - Alan Johnson, David Blunkett, John Hutton, (Peter Hain) and now James Purnell. From 2006, its work was supplemented by the Social Exclusion Task Force.
It is therefore possible to compare the two approaches - the "Brownite" approach under Darling and Smith, which was based around higher benefits plus improved state-provided services to help people into work, as opposed to the "Blairite" approach which emphasises a greater role for the private sector in delivering services for targeted "hard to reach" groups, together with emphasis on the need for poor individuals to take greater personal responsibility for getting out of poverty.
Of the 32 indicators which DWP policies were primarily responsible for affecting, under Darling and Smith 17 improved, 11 stayed steady, and 4 got worse. After the "Brownites" lost control of the DWP and the "Blairite" approach was tried instead, 4 improved, 17 stayed steady and 11 got worse.
This is not intended as a eulogy towards Gordon Brown - one reason for the poor performance after 2004 was that his attentions and spending priorities turned away from reducing poverty and on to other causes, culminating in the dreadful decision to scrap the 10p tax rate. But what this does show is the best and the worst of Labour in government.
At its best, real, significant progress has been made through state action to help people - not just improving their economic circumstances, but also in cutting crime, reducing the numbers living in non-decent housing, improving health and educational outcomes. But at its worst, a combination of neglect, political infighting and abandoning effective policies for ideological reasons has stalled or undermined progress. These ideological beliefs - in the superior efficiency of the private sector in delivering services and in the importance of individuals being sanctioned if they don't take more personal responsibility - are unsupported by the evidence.
In these much more difficult times economically, it is absolutely crucial to understand the lessons of the past ten years, what worked and what didn't. It is rather a pity that instead, our government seems to have decided that what is needed is more of what hasn't been working.