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A government 'ministry of poverty' could help us change course

A department focusing on prevention first is essential if we are to find our way out of poverty, says John Bird

Striking members of Unite and the NEU march on Westminster

Striking members of Unite and the NEU march on Westminster on 2 May. Image: Hesther Ng/SOPA Images/Shutterstock

I am taking through the Lords what has been called the Friday release Bill, barring letting people out of prison on a Friday. A difficult, at times impossible day to get the support services you need to see you over the weekend. With a third of people leaving prison without accommodation and work or financial support, someone becoming homeless on release is a real possibility.

It is made even more likely if you are let out on a Friday. And you are more likely to get back into trouble if there is nothing for you in those crucial days following being de-institutioned. Suddenly the roof over your head and regular meals and some kind of social association is removed from you. And you’re stuck out in a seemingly uncaring world. 

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It’s a bit of tidying up that could help a number of people leave prison without being vulnerable because they leave on a day when support services are available.  

But there are bigger fish to fry and now I am working on a new bill for the next Parliament that will be very difficult to convince government to take up. And if anyone needs it it’s government.  

Within the NHS, with 50% of its budget going on trying to keep poor people as healthy as possible, there is no strident work being done to prevent people slipping into poverty. You may well ask is it the NHS’s job to prevent poverty, even though it is a health issue to try and prevent it? The NHS has little resources to do any more than simply try and keep the ship afloat, and that is proving difficult enough. 

Turning off the tap, preventing sick patients becoming sick is way beyond their philosophy and their practice. Doctors are angled to cure someone once they are ill. No one goes to the doctor so the doctor can stop them from becoming ill because that is a labyrin­thine problem where concentrating on prevention would not allow time to cure the sick. 

If you look at schools and the increasing problem of pupils unable to function properly because they have not eaten well, and other problems around poverty, then you have a problem similar to the NHS: schools cannot prevent or address poverty in the lives of their pupils and students.  

Yet who is going to do this essential work of making sure poverty is reduced in the lives of people who then end up ill and underfed and unable to make the most of their schooling? 

Is there a government silo, because that’s how governments work, for preventing poverty or getting people out of poverty? The residual people who get left behind and whose children get only one form of inheritance: poverty and need. 

The Department for Work and Pensions runs the levelling up programme, but is that a poverty department? Much, or most, of the DWP’s work is spent on trying to keep people in poverty as comfortable as possible, considering the constraints in their budgets.  

So poverty continues to harm the best intentions of our education department, and likewise with our health department. How lovely it would be to get rid of poverty so that the NHS hadn’t to deal with so many people harmed by poverty. You could say that poverty destroys intention. 

So we don’t really have a silo in government whose mission is to rid the world of poverty. Now in an ideal world you wouldn’t have silos, but governments working across problems. Not in the way that we don’t address problems now but push them further down the road. 

So what about a ministry of poverty? What about putting poverty on the menu rather than have it ineptly dealt with elsewhere. The silo system doesn’t work completely, but even if it only achieved 50% of its brief, imagine getting rid of 50% of poverty? Wouldn’t that be a kick in the right direction? 

But try suggesting to government or MPs and peers that we need a new ministry because we are not addressing the issue and therefore are going to have bigger health bills and poorer education returns. And more people in unemployment and in prison and in hospitals who come from poverty. 

According to some statisticians, by 2050 all the government raises by tax etc will have to go on paying for health. There will be nothing left for any other government budget. So the pressure is on to reduce the cost of health by breaking poverty, the biggest cause of health problems.  

I have yet to talk to any politico who would agree with me. Which is a good sign. Why? Because if it was obvious it would have been done. This is about the biggest leap imaginable. Where building a poverty ministry would bring together all efforts, experiments and examples that work or have worked. Hoovering up all the answers and solutions. 

One half-impressed person said the name is wrong. “Ministry of poverty” is a downer. But then the ministry of health or “levelling up” give a good buzz, but do they deliver health? No, they deliver sick cures wherever possible. And as for levelling up? Is that actually more than a term? 

The best place for the ministry of poverty would be at Number 10 and run by the prime minister. And the prime minister would be its minister. Because reducing poverty would revitalise all of us.

John Bird is the founder and editor in chief of The Big Issue. Read more of his words here.

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