Focus: Policy and Politics - Tories may embrace 'relative poverty'

Nathalie Thomas

Leader's advisory group recommends a new approach to the poor.

Charities have welcomed the news that the Conservative Party could reform the way it looks at poverty by assessing it according to changing social norms rather than financial criteria.

Leading MPs in David Cameron's Social Justice Challenge, the commission set up last year to explore how the Conservatives can achieve social justice, announced last week that they would try to broaden Tory policy in this area.

"We feel it is important for the Conservative Party to accept that poverty is relative," said Greg Clark, Tory MP for Tunbridge Wells, and chair of the commission's economic failure and welfare dependency sub-group.

In what many will view as a policy U-turn for the Conservatives, Clark suggested abandoning the financial benchmarks according to which poverty is judged. He said: "Labour has taken a narrow financial approach to poverty by defining it as 60 per cent of median income or below.

"It believes the way to tackle poverty is to pour in more and more social security benefits, but that does not address the root causes of poverty."

Mervyn Kohler, head of public affairs at Help the Aged, said he was "delighted" by the new approach. The charity bemoans the way older people are being treated in the Government's pensions reform White Paper because their standard of living is calculated according to 1997 standards.

"Since then, everybody in society has got richer and the relative poverty line has actually risen," Kohler said.

He added that poverty needs to be measured in a variety of different ways - in terms of access to services and links with wider society, for example.

The Child Poverty Action Group was equally receptive to the new Tory approach. Kate Green, chief executive of CPAG, said: "We welcome the fact that the Conservatives have recognised the importance of relative poverty." But Green warned that the problem of poverty experienced by people who are in work also needs to be considered.

"Both the Conservatives and the Government need to develop policies that address the problem of in-work poverty, as well as making sure that those who cannot work are not left to languish on benefit rates well below the poverty line," she added.

There are no guarantees that the Social Justice Challenge's findings will affect Conservative policy.

KEY POINTS

- David Cameron's Social Justice Challenge wants the Conservatives to assess poverty according to changing social norms rather than financial criteria

- Those earning 60 per cent of median national income or below are currently considered to be in poverty

- Charities including Help the Aged and the Child Poverty Action Group have welcomed the suggestion.

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