There is much debate about poverty in the UK. To have an effective debate in our open but fragile democracy, we need to have objective information to consider. Over time a range of measures of living standards and poverty have emerged. Some are calculations of the amount of money people need for what society considers the essentials of life. There is much debate on what is considered essential. Other measures are about comparing how much money different groups of people have to live on compared with other groups. The most commonly reported measures of poverty use this relative poverty approach. So if average incomes were £1 million, people earning £400,000 could be deemed to be living in relative poverty. Relative poverty measures mean that, whoever is in government, there will always be people deemed to be living in poverty.
It’s an important debate, but I am more focussed on the people living here who are struggling to make ends meet and putting more money in their pockets. Long before I was elected as your local MP, I worked hard to help people out of poverty. When I was Director of Age Concern England, I campaigned to end pensioner poverty. Since being elected I have continued my work with people who are all too often overlooked. They need help from their families, friends, employers, communities, as well as local and national government agencies.
The most fundamental need is for a decent, warm and affordable home. Housing costs are the biggest part of living costs for many local people, especially for those on the lowest incomes.
Although it has taken much longer than I and many Cornwall Council employees had hoped, Cornwall Council leaders are now beginning to use the powers they have been given and their financial resources to build more social and genuinely affordable homes and to drive up standards in the private rented sector. It is thanks to this government’s new Homeless Prevention Act and the ramped-up regulation of landlords that Cornwall Council is now focussing on this issue. I am delighted that it has recently said that it will buy homes for homeless people rather than pay for bed and breakfast accommodation.
Some people need financial help too. Thanks to good partnership working, including with Cornwall Council, Universal Credit is helping local people. The more tailor-made support local work coaches can offer people in and out of work is a significant improvement on the previous complex benefit system it replaces, where too many people missed out on support they were entitled to. It’s a major reform being introduced carefully. Lessons are being learned and improvements made. I work closely with local, impartial, expert welfare advisers, taking up issues identified and securing positive changes in processes as well as extra funding. We spent £264 billion on welfare in 2017, 34% of government expenditure. Some benefits for people who can work are capped (£20,000 per year for couples and lone parents). Pensioner and disability benefits are not capped.
First published in the West Briton 29/11/18