Monday 20 May 2024

Summoning the genie


Statistics and numbers are important, of course, as a means of measuring and assessing things. They also serve a useful function as evidence in political debate, although they seem to be misused more often than not. But one thing we should never do is lose sight of the fact that behind those numbers there are usually real people facing real issues: they aren’t just numbers in a spreadsheet. It’s a point which the Labour Party seem to be missing when it comes to the two-child cap on benefits.

There are arguments for and against setting the level of benefits according to the size of a household. Those against doing so argue that wages and salaries don’t very according to need so benefits shouldn’t do so either; others point out that wages and salaries, unlike benefits, aren’t deliberately set at a level which is supposed to provide an absolute minimum income based on an assessment of need. Whichever side of that debate one supports, arbitrarily setting a limit at two children meets neither of the criteria. It is simply an arbitrary decision based on saving money, and disregarding the consequences for the individuals affected. What is unarguable is that a minimal household income, allegedly set on the basis of need but deliberately excluding part of that need from the assessment, will result in more children living in poverty than would be the case if all children were taken into account.

It's a debate into which the Archbishop of Canterbury waded last week, earning himself the support – in principle – of Labour’s Shadow Health Secretary. Support in principle seems unlikely to turn into concrete action in the short term, however, even if Labour, as universally expected outside the Downing Street bunker, win the Westminster election later this year. Like so many of Labour’s ‘aspirations’, it will have to wait until the magic growth genie emerges from the lantern and enables the government to do something about the situation without breaking its own, entirely arbitrary, fiscal rules. Labour will, Streeting tells us, have a “serious cross-government strategy” for addressing child poverty, but they can’t tell us what it is yet because they haven’t developed it, and in any event they can’t implement it until the genie has done his work. It means, in essence, further delay, and despite Streeting’s fine words about child poverty having “an impact on their long-term health, wellbeing and educational outcomes”, they are deliberately planning for more children to suffer those consequences for fear that the Tory press will portray them as spendthrift. That will continue for an unspecified and indeterminate period after their election – and if the genie doesn’t show up, then potentially for ever. It makes his support for the archbishop’s words look more than a little mealy-mouthed.

They are placing total reliance on that genie without having the slightest idea of how to summon him out of the lantern, even if he’s in there in the first place. All they can do is rub and polish, rub and polish. But they have to find the lantern first, and it’s not at all certain that they have any more clue than Sunak about where to look.

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