Event report: Poverty measurement seminar in Parliament

On Tuesday 12 February 2019, the RSS organised a roundtable meeting in Parliament, on the new poverty measure developed recently by the Social Metrics Commission (SMC).

The keynote speakers were Baroness [Philippa] Stroud, Baroness [Ruth Lister] and Lord [David] Lipsey. It was chaired by Sir Peter Bottomley MP. The discussion centred around how the SMC’s new poverty measure might be adopted by government.

Sir Peter introduced the speakers and explained how the new poverty metric represents an improvement on other measures; that it looks at the combination of available resources to someone combined with their inescapable costs. Such inescapable costs include rent/mortgage payments, childcare, extra costs associated with disability and other debt. It was also noted that the length of time people spend in poverty and ‘lived experience’ indicators are included in the new measure.

Baroness Lister commended the report, noting that the UN rapporteur on poverty - Professor Philip Alston - recently urged the UK government to adopt the approach and noted its cross-party support. Baroness Lister then talked about how the measure is strengthened through its ‘smoothing’ approach, that it takes in housing and other inescapable costs, recognises disability costs and focuses on both the depth of poverty and indicators of the ‘lived experience’ of poverty. She concluded that the new measure is an important step forward and we should start using it as a comparison to existing measures.

Lord Lipsey, co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Statistics, reasserted how this measure deals with two defects of previous measures: it is sensitive to needs (especially disability) and it takes assets into account. He made the point that it changes who we think is poor and can therefore improve the accuracy of policy interventions. He concluded by saying, 'we need to be apostles of this new measure, which is a step in the right direction.'

Chris Ruane MP then asked some questions, including: 'How can data visualisation be used to communicate the new measure? Will it be UK-wide? Will data be shared between localities and regions? Where have the datasets come from?' Baroness Stroud replied that the data came from government data sets – in order to appeal to the current government mindset. She added that whenever a party makes a budgetary announcement or spending review, the SMC will evaluate it in terms of the new metric.

A senior official from the Department for Work and Pensions added that adoption of the new metric would be a decision for central government rather than local government and that a key attraction for civil servants, like herself, was the cross-party consensus behind it. She welcomed the potential for this to be the agreed metric for future ministers coming into the DWP.

Sir Peter asserted the need for the new measure to be communicated in a creative and interesting way. Matthew Oakley, director of WPI Economics and a commissioner on the report, then made the point that the SMC framework is helping others - such as local authorities - consider how they count people living in poverty. He said the SMC wanted to use the same data set for comparative purposes.

RSS fellow Michael Baxter noted that the new measure does not take transport costs into account. Baroness Stroud replied saying no suitable proxies could be found for those costs but they are legitimate under the framework. Baroness Tyler then spoke of the previous successes in helping move older people out of poverty, and argued we should apply similar methods to current groups which are poor. In response, Baroness Stroud proposed a campaign to put more money behind the Family Resources Survey to improve sample size.

It was then asked where the 55% poverty threshold, as the median level of total available resources, had come from. Baroness Stroud said that, in all measures of poverty, the threshold figure was arbitrary and the aim of this report was to make it less, not more, arbitrary than previous measures.

One of the report’s Commissioner’s, and RSS’s executive director, Hetan Shah, asked how the measure can become adopted by the government. Lord Lipsey called for widespread adoption whilst Sir Peter suggested multiple meetings with stakeholders such as the ONS and Economic & Social Research Council. Baroness Stroud then said she is working on a draft Bill, which she hopes the government might adopt.

Alison Garnham, of the Child Poverty Action Group, then asked if such a Bill would retain other existing measures, and how independent bodies such as ONS can be involved. Baroness Stroud replied by saying that the UK’s National Statistician, John Pullinger, was an advisor and the new measure should not replace existing ones, but should improve upon them. Baroness Lister agreed that we cannot just jettison older measures; we need to use this as a comparative measure in the early days.

The well-attended event was a highly constructive session with a diverse range of views. Shortly after the event, Chris Ruane MP commented that it was a 'fantastic meeting with APPG on Poverty and the RSS this morning. Excellent discussion on the proposal of changing the way we evaluate poverty.'

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