Should the UK have a Secretary of State for Reducing Poverty?
Rich Watts recently made the argument on the Arbitrary Constant blog that the abolition of the Department for Work and Pensions should be considered. The Centre for Welfare Reform also argued that the DWP should disappear (albeit as part as a minimum income plan to be administered by HMRC). This raises the question of which DWP responsibilities should go where. One such question might be: should the UK have a Minister for Reducing Poverty? Whilst obviously no panacea, there is a case for such a position to challenge the rest of government and act as an agent for change.
The idea is not without precedent in the UK. The government in Wales appointed a Minister for Tackling Poverty back in March (Huw Lewis, soon replaced by Jeff Cuthbert). This position is necessarily different to the role a UK Poverty Minister would have, as the Welsh position is in effect a response to welfare reform. A related, more telling, example might be the old Social Exclusion Unit (SEU). The Labour government in 1997 established the SEU, which was shuffled from the Cabinet Office to the DPM’s office before returning in 2006 as the Social Exclusion Taskforce (SET) in the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit. There was a Cabinet Office role in 1999 with a responsibility for social exclusion, becoming a position in its own right with cabinet rights in 2006 until Gordon Brown took over, when it returned to the cabinet office (and has now disappeared).
If the related social exclusion Ministers and units disappeared, why should there be one now? There are several answers. The first is that the demise of the SEU/SET and the ministerial positions reflected political and personnel decisions, as well as the particular social exclusion agenda of Blair becoming unfashionable under Brown. But while it existed, its reports did seem to challenge other government departments. This is an important function, which could be made more effective with a Cabinet level position.
The second answer is that it would provide be a direct advocate for poverty issues in the cabinet, or at least in government. A department for poverty reduction would have an opportunity to shape the agenda with particular reference to poverty. Why isn’t this currently the case? Gov.uk notes that the DWP is currently “responsible for the administration of the state pension and working age benefits system.” Herein lies the problem of the DWP as the voice of tackling poverty in government: its focus is almost by definition on the social security system. Its concern for work and poverty are both a mere extension of this, something to be resolved through changes to the incentives within the administration of benefits. A Secretary of State for reducing poverty enjoying a much wider field of vision, would be free of this.
The third answer is that in a financially constrained period, as both Labour and the Tories have signed up to (although there are differences), a Cabinet position would represent a sign of commitment to the agenda rather than an abandonment of it. Such a role could be tasked at looking at advancing an anti-poverty agenda that looks beyond a spending approach.
The main case against might be that the DWP currently effectively reflects the prevailing political consensus on poverty. And that is, as alluded to above, that poverty is either a problem mainly of inadequate work entry and progression incentives or these are all that a constrained state can do in the face of globalization (other than education and creating a conducive business environment). These roughly correspond to the Coalition and last Labour government’s approaches respectively. But whilst the political consensus on poverty needs to change, there is potential for such a Cabinet Minister to act as an agent for change without the social security-technical focus of the DWP. This in turn would push government to think about the implications of their own policy decisions, and about how people in poverty are treated by people in power.