Together, Sir Humphrey, we can beat poverty

Together, Sir Humphrey, we can beat poverty


Oliver Letwin

The Times




Last week was relative poverty week — when it was revealed that the number of people living on less than 40 per cent of median income has grown by 750,000 under Labour.


It was also a week when, for the first time in decades, the Conservatives were at the centre of the poverty debate — announcing a new agenda to lift people out of deep poverty by removing the traps of multiple deprivation that cause it.


But, in a typically thoughtful piece in these pages, Matthew Parris raised a really important question. He noted that David Cameron was talking about putting more trust in locally based social enterprises to take responsibility for tackling poor housing, family breakdown and spiralling debt.


But, he asked, how will a government that puts its trust in social enterprise and voluntary bodies avoid smothering those bodies under a blanket of Whitehall targets, directives, regulations and performance monitoring?


In the Conservative Policy Review, we know that we need to provide an answer. And the good news is that the broad outline of the answer is clear — government has to take conscious risk.


The truth is that risk-averse bureaucracy is one of the causes of poverty. In a bureaucracy, there are no significant rewards for taking successful risks; but there are plenty of penalties for failure. So bureaucrats respond (as we all would) by building defences — bulwarks of procedure, forms and monitoring that will reduce risk. Bang goes any hope of the vitality, the flexibility, the enterprising spirit and the human touch that are needed to deal with highly intractable social problems.


If we are serious about tackling the causes of deep poverty, we need a different model — one in which government as a matter of policy encourages local communities and the third sector to take risks in the name of social responsibility.


In other words, we need to arm Sir Humphrey with a new defence.


We want him to be able to say to the journalists, the auditors and the parliamentary committees: “I have been specifically commanded by Her Majesty’s Government to tell you that a significant amount of failure was anticipated, that if no failure had occurred this would have indicated that too little risk was being taken, and that what matters to HMG is not whether there are failures but whether local communities and locally based social enterprises are obtaining a high number of sustainable successes in lifting people out of traps of multiple deprivation.”


Now that would be quite a new sort of speech for Sir Humphrey, wouldn’t it, Matthew?


Oliver Letwin is the Conservatives’ policy development chief