No Half Measures – Why Your Council Should Declare a Poverty Emergency in Full

By Cllr Mandy Clare

Having taken part in a unanimous cross-party vote in favour of declaring a Climate Emergency a few months before the crisis, subsequent council meetings were filled with hours of reporting, discussion and cross-party agreement on climate-related issues and targets.  This is essentially a global problem over which local authorities individually have limited control. The intention is that through a collectivised declaration, councils are nevertheless able to amplify their influence on an urgent issue at national level.  Substantial additional funding and officer resources have since been ringfenced at a local level, bringing that intention off the page locally and in a meaningful way.

Making such a declaration and setting out clear goals effectively makes a strong public statement.  Even if some initially unpopular decisions have to be seen through, even though people may struggle with change, even though there may be teething problems, despite budget cuts and the likelihood that government may not appreciate councils adopting a collectivised stance on this issue, the council is nevertheless forging ahead.  The Climate Emergency declaration planted the seed of another idea.

Who could have imagined a year ago we would be in the situation that we now face?  The past year has brought a truly dismal display of what runaway capitalist tendencies look like in charge of a pandemic. Here we still are, in the midst of uncertainty, hoping the recklessness will not result in the emergence of a strain of the virus that cannot be contained by multi-million pound vaccination programmes. 

Through the trauma and gloom dawned a really hopeful national realisation that perhaps all these years we have, as a nation, been valuing and handsomely rewarding the wrong jobs and skill sets. This seems to have been conveniently shunted off the agenda and hastily replaced before it had a chance to take hold in the popular imagination.  Meanwhile, the tangible public gratitude and Dunkirk spirit of the initial lockdown has morphed into a weary acceptance of serial ‘mockdowns’ that could in theory drag on indefinitely, or will at the very least continue adding to the world-beating tally of avoidable deaths. 

We miss our families and our relative freedoms.  Any further discussion about building a different kind of future may at this point be construed as indulgent within the wider context of the disorientating chaos that has been this government’s mishandling of the crisis to date.   How ironic that their privatisation and milking of this human catastrophe has managed to push us even further away from having those vital conversations about fairness, true value, community and social justice which seemed to have opened up naturally at the beginning of the crisis.

We have declared a Poverty Emergency in Cheshire West and Chester Council as one way to achieve a number of things we feel are important, not least of which is to refuse to allow the opportunity for a truthful conversation about poverty and social injustice to go to waste. With over 100,000 lives lost, a disproportionate number of them of people on the lowest incomes, with the least political agency and voice, it is one way that we can try to ensure that we try to properly honour their lives through creating a better society from this wreckage.  Seven other councils have now joined us, some of them gaining a decent level of cross-party support as we did and others gaining unanimous support.  This is a great start but we need more on board with us now to ensure it works as intended.

A fifth of people in working households in the UK now live in relative poverty, an increase of 40% from the mid-1990s.  A number of factors are given by organisations such as the Institute of Fiscal Studies and Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) in explaining this increase. However,  a further look into the detail of the impacts on families with children and in particular, single parents, such as in this Child Poverty Action Group report is worthwhile The picture with regard to working families is much more complex than it may seem to be and is not really well-represented and understood without this background and context. 

Between 1979 and 2016, the proportion of MPs who were manual workers decreased steadily from 15.8% to just 4%.  In 1961, 75% of workers were classed as manual or low-skilled clerical, so there has always been a vast under-representation of those on low incomes politically but never to the extent of almost invisibility that we now see.  However, they did have some political visibility and voice at that time.  We don’t know what percentage of councillors or senior officers within local government have originated from manual, low status/low skilled or low paid backgrounds because councils don’t even measure it, let alone think through how we might seek to improve it.  It would be unlikely to be anywhere near the proportion of people from manual or low status/low skilled backgrounds within UK society as a whole, even though that has now decreased and is closer to between 30% and 50% of the workforce. 

This article gives a great run-down of how government policies have re-moulded working class incomes across those intervening decades and with it, whatever power that section of society had politically.

New analysis by the Institute for Employment Studies has found that low-paid workers are more than twice as likely as those not classified as low-paid to have lost their jobs during the pandemic and are at far greater risk of being temporarily laid off or having their hours cut. 

All in all, it seems the right moment, possibly the last moment, for us to acknowledge that this particular equalities issue, one with no formalised protection within equalities law and much-neglected within equalities-related dialogue and debate, is in fact at a point of emergency.  It has been for some time, unfairly cutting life short, with policy and resources too often reflecting an individualised blame or behaviour choice narrative instead of evidence.  Those who once had at least some semblance of political agency through withdrawal of their labour and collective bargaining are, in this crisis moment, reliant upon those of us that can still collectivise to do something about it, or to at least try. 

On a more encouraging note, a new ICM poll by independent think tank British Future and the Policy Institute at Kings College London has revealed that two thirds of the British public agree that the coronavirus crisis has made them value the role of ‘low-skilled’ workers in essential services, such as shops, transport and care homes, more than they did before.

What we managed to get voted through once our meetings started again in October was quite detailed and offers a framework for the A Fairer Future Strategy that we are currently pulling together.  We achieved cross-party support from all political groups in our council – Labour, Green, Conservative, Lib Dem and Independents – and I was delighted that we had powerful speeches in support by members of the public with lived experience of poverty, as well as from the Green Party Councillor who seconded the motion.  The Conservative vote was split between support (5), abstain (5), lost call connection at the point of voting (1) and against (the rest).  All other parties voted unanimously in favour.

My slight concern has been that it will be adopted by some other councils in a diluted form.  This could detract from creating a solid enough base from which councils could support each other in taking that evidence collectively to government, refusing to be pulled off course through shifting the lens away from the root cause of inadequate income to one or more of the by-products of that root cause, such as hunger, and in raising the bar for each other in terms of good practice locally. 

Councils are each unique, but I have asked people to stay as true to the original motion as possible.  Ideally, we will become as forthright and committed on poverty, as an equalities issue and threat to life, wellbeing and basic social justice, as we are on climate change.  Not known traditionally for our radicalism, councils could be a force to be reckoned with through this initiative, if we are prepared to stand up on the basis of the evidence in front of us, in the same way that we have been willing to do on climate and in partnership with other organisations at national level, unions and academics.  The motion sets out our commitment to taking this collective approach and invites others to join us.  This is perhaps the most important part of the motion.

In relation to the problem of household income, council policy often tends to focus almost entirely on ‘moving people closer to the jobs market’ and on ‘training so that people on low incomes can access better quality work’.  The problem is that according to the JRF, in-work poverty was increasing faster than employment itself, even pre-pandemic.  Just getting a job in itself, especially for people in low income communities, can’t really be the answer.  It may raise income for some, but they are still in poverty. 

We are a wealthy economy.  Should in-work poverty be a thing?  Any more than food parcels?  How have we slipped into being complicit in normalising ‘rescue’, through pushing people into poorly paid and insecure work and calling that an answer, and through seeing  budgeting, nutrition and cookery classes as an adequate response to this underlying issue?  We have done so through our compliance and silence and our lack of analysis of something that feels too big for us to take on.  We have a voice and now is the time to be using it.

As medium and smaller businesses go to the wall, only to be consumed by those able to withstand the economic blow, those larger organisations as employers will do what they exist to do – chasing ever-increasing returns on investment for shareholders, putting downward pressure on already-squeezed wages and job security in the usual way, but at a faster pace because of the damage to business from the ongoing stop-start lockdown.  Given an even more compliant and exploitable workforce than ever before, we can clearly see where this is going, post-crisis.  Training everyone up towards being better able to access ‘better quality jobs’ doesn’t solve the problem either.  Those jobs considered too lowly for decent pay and security will still need to be done by someone, and it turns out they are not as peripheral or as elementary as they have been presented.

One radical yet viable way of seeding better terms and conditions, status and democratic participation within a ‘renewal’ economy for the longer term would be for councils and co-op-supporting organisations to come together and press government to provide kickstart funding and support to low income communities in establishing co-operative models of ownership.  We have included this in our motion, because there are already in existence some great models of working class collective ownership that have transformed the whole experience of work, over and above wages, for those running them, who are still doing the same jobs, only now within an authentic collective ownership structure and who say they would never look back.  These kinds of demands and plans are going to stand a much better chance if councils can push for proper support for them at the national level, as a collective voice.

I had a concern that a catchier but more selective motion might be circulated with more of a publicity push, connections and a budget behind it, which might keep the issue of poverty and the need for change within less challenging parameters.  Talking about ‘food poverty’ for example, is an easier sell to government and the public than looking at the whole joined up issue as one of income and equality.  People have died in far greater numbers just because they are poor.  We can’t address the systemic inequality at its root by forever micro-focussing on the symptoms and end results that flow from inadequate income, just because it’s easier and less contentious.  It hasn’t worked so far and it won’t work beyond the crisis.  If we are serious about this issue, we need to take an evidence-based and collectivised approach to exposing the actual root.  The multiple strands of misery that drive people to seek over-stretched and under-funded services at council front doors primarily track back to this issue of income.

Poverty itself is being considered now by some expert analysts as an Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) in its own right.  This systematic review provides compelling evidence of the strong ‘multiplier’ effect that poverty tends to have on long-term trauma outcomes for children exposed to ACEs where poverty sits alongside them.  The authors conclude that, “Policy therefore needs to both help those currently affected by childhood adversity, but to prevent further adversity, it must also understand the relationship between socio-economic position and Adverse Childhood Experiences and reduce socio-economic inequality and poverty.”

 So again, this issue is much bigger than food.  At some point we have to acknowledge what is staring us in the face.  Inadequate income is pervasive and it is hurting our children and their parents long-term. It is undermining the meaning of democracy and it can’t ever be resolved by food parcels or philanthropy, or even through legalising a right to food, however well-meant.

Food insecurity is of course a recognised, reliable indicator of inadequate income and Marcus Rashford has recently stated that the problem of poverty is a much bigger conversation than food.  It was encouraging to hear him say this and I hope he starts this bigger conversation really soon.  It doesn’t mean we should stop supporting the food initiatives.  We still need to do all we can to prevent children from being uprooted from their friends and schools through homelessness, to try to address digital exclusion, transport poverty, educational under-attainment and to drive forward public health programmes.  However, the goal can’t be limited to silos of rescue and patching up after the fact.

Sir Michael Marmot has confirmed in his most recent report that we cannot realistically discuss this issue any longer without looking at the problems of the damaged social safety net and the growing problem of in-work poverty.  Of course, people can suffer homelessness, or mental health problems, or fall into unmanageable debt without having been poor. But the risk is vastly increased if persistent low income is the backdrop and this is where the majority of the misery stems from. 

Everyone in a wealthy economy should be able to afford to house, clothe and feed themselves and their kids and be able to live a reasonable quality of life. Insufficient income being the predominant common denominator, we need to use our evidence rather than political opinion, to ensure that beyond the crisis, government attaches the appropriate value to those jobs previously considered less worthy, and also to our children, parents and those in need of society’s support.

Services need to be situated and allocated proportionately in relation to where the pandemic has been shown to have had the harshest impacts – our low income communities.  There needs to be a willingness to support low income communities to come together and more readily access support and to rebuild in a way that takes fair account of these greater impacts. It should be done in a way that enables people to learn about building co-operatives within the new and changed economic environment, access union support and  support with rogue landlords, rogue employers, loan sharks and bailiffs and to build their own campaigns to pressurise government for a more accurate recognition of the roles of frontline workers, such as checkout staff, cleaners, carers, security guards, public transport workers, pickers, packers and delivery drivers, catering staff, nursery staff, taxi drivers, school staff, health and social care frontline staff and refuse collectors.

Do we have to wait for a Labour Government to pull out the root?  The government did not listen to the 2010 Marmot report, the working class ‘voted against their interests’ (if we set aside the minor issue of Brexit and democracy), so what good can a council motion really do? 

This is an unprecedented moment.  Marcus Rashford and the NEU both managed to achieve overnight change that some would have said was implausible, given the government’s firmly stated position on both the issue of holiday hunger and the issue of schools returning and being perfectly safe.  We never anticipated a moment where the true value of those low-status, low and insecure income workers would make itself glaringly obvious. It is up to us to do something with that opportunity.  The more of us collectivised behind this, the better – and what else are we going to do?  Sit on our hands?

We need to put this motion to our councils, present the evidence and make the case.  If sceptics minimise this as virtue-signalling that can have no impact, ask if that is also true of the Climate Emergency initiative?  Is that pointless virtue signalling too?  Point out that councils have never taken a collective, evidence-based position on poverty as an equalities issue before and it’s time we tried.  And remind them of what Desmond Tutu said: “There comes a point where we need to stop just pulling people out of the river.  We need to go upstream and find out why they’re falling in.”

No half-measures.  By our collective action, through adopting this motion and working together, we can make sure that this moment of change and possibility is not wasted.

Please contact mandy.clare@cheshirewestandchester.gov.uk  for a copy of the motion.  If you make a Poverty Emergency declaration, please get in touch and let me know, so we can add you to our online community of supportive councils.  Our website will launch on 15th February www.povertyemergency.cheshirewestandchester.gov.uk

Thank you to Barrow, Cannock Chase, Liverpool, Leeds, Norwich and South Lakeland Councils for joining us.

Mandy Clare is Labour Councillor for Winsford Dene in Cheshire West and Chester and the Leader’s Champion for Poverty and Inequality.

Image: Houses on Union Road, Lincoln, England. Author: Rept0n1x, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported2.5 Generic2.0 Generic and 1.0 Generic license.

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