Time to tackle the difficult social problems which are the root cause of poverty - Lord John Bird
(This article was published online in The Evening Standard on 29 June 2021. It was authored by Lord John Bird, Co-Chair of the APPG for Future Generations)
In 1946, I was born into the slums of Notting Hill; a life which seemed to offer little more than prospects of abject poverty and permanent insecurity. The lottery of birth meant that I fell into the age-old trap of seeking insecure, low-paid work, just to make ends meet. Continued hardship saw me slide into rough sleeping until, ultimately, I landed myself in prison. Shamefully, not an unusual anecdote for someone living in the sixth richest nation in the world.
But I was one of the lucky ones. I managed to beat the odds and have since gone on to found The Big Issue and enter the House of Lords. I’ve spent almost 30 years helping over 100,000 vulnerable people lift themselves out of poverty. But the thing that keeps me up at night is that we are nowhere near eradicating poverty. For decades, Government after Government has floundered, using a sticking plaster to paper over the cracks of complicated social problems. But that is not the solution, nor is it cost effective.
That is why I have joined forces with Simon Fell MP to introduce the ‘Wellbeing of Future Generations’ bill in both the House of Commons and the House of Lords. Modelled off the Welsh Act (2015), this is a bill which would re-imagine our sound-bite driven politics. With preventative spending at its heart, it looks beyond the inertia of five-year election cycles and places the emphasis on the long-term.
And it’s not just what I want, it’s what the electorate are calling for. Newly published research, conducted by Portland Communications, in our ‘Facing the Future’ report shows that two-thirds of voters think Government should do more to plan for the longer-term. Sick of Twitter-stimulated politics, that number rises to 73% amongst swing voters who want the Government to put long-termism at the heart of politics.
These swing voters, who account for the so-called ‘red wall’ will be a key battleground at the next election. And what this report tells us, is that an administration brave enough to act for the long-term, will be rewarded at the ballot box. Because, as my colleague and co-Sponsor, the Member of Parliament for Barrow and Furness knows, left-behind communities do not improve overnight. To really deliver the Government’s ambitious levelling-up agenda is to create durable, long-term changes.
And my Wellbeing of Future Generations’ bill is not just popular with the public, it is also gaining momentum in Parliament. Having come first in the Private Members’ bill ballot, it now has the highest chance of success in this Parliamentary session. As the Co-Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Future Generations, I know that this agenda has wide cross-party appeal. Already, MPs from eight political parties have pledged their support to the bill because whatever your ideology, the shortcomings of stop gap politics is not lost on anyone.
So in a year like no other, when the value of prevention is clear, we can mend our broken politics. Instead of haemorrhaging taxpayer’s money tackling the symptoms of poverty, we should tackle difficult social problems at their root cause. Because if nothing else, I know that it’s expensive to keep people poor. It costs taxpayers £1 million on average to produce one Big Issue vendor. That’s because 80% of our vendors grew up in local authority care, which costs £15,000 a month.
Not only is long-term thinking more fiscally sound, but it also benefits us all. As Disraeli reminded us, ‘the castle is unsafe if the cottage is unhappy’. That is why I implore my colleagues, at an historic post-Covid juncture, to throw their weight behind my new, ambitious bill and be remembered for improving the lives of future generations.
Read the Facing our Future Report here.