I have always had a lot of time for Frank Field. Ever since he was appointed by Tony Blair as the minister for 'thinking the unthinkable' and was then roundly ignored and sidelined, I have felt that he was one of the very few people in Labour's ranks who understood how society really worked, and was prepared to say unfashionable things to make his case. He's the very opposite of a woolly liberal - tough-minded and clear-thinking, even if he is on the Left.
Yesterday, David Cameron announced the setting up of an Independent Review on Poverty and Life Chances and, to his credit, asked a Labour MP - Frank Field - to lead it. I think Frank will be an ideal leader of a review which needs to get down to basics and unpick the current disastrous situation, where Labour poured money into alleviating (the target was 'ending') poverty, but we ended up with a society where the divide between the poor and the rich was wider in 2010 than it was in 1997. He has written an article in today's Telegraph where he sets out some thoughts.
His first point, and one which has been made here and in many other places, is that if you measure poverty in the way that Labour does, where an income below 60% of the national average marks you as 'poor', then the elimination of poverty is a mathematical impossibility. As you lift people's incomes, so the national average goes up, and you are back where you started. As Field says:
Any candidate sitting GCSE maths should be able to explain that raising everybody above a set percentage of median income is rather like asking a cat to catch its own tail. As families are raised above the target level of income, the median point itself rises. Not surprisingly, therefore, no country in the free world has managed to achieve this objective, not even in those Scandinavian countries whose social models many of us admire.
He recommends a focus on, not the simple and rather clumsy measure of raw income, but on the non-monetary factors such as how easy it is for a poor person to "climb the ladder towards prosperity". He concludes:
If the review is successful, the debate over poverty will give way to a dynamic approach that looks at how we ensure that each individual is able to achieve their best self. And taxpayers will be in a position to judge whether government expenditure – at whatever level – is geared to this outcome.
Smart move by iDave. A Tory - or even a tainted LibDem - couldn't get away with mentioning taxpayer value, for example, without calling down the screaming hordes of lefties in the media and the BBC. I will watch this one with interest.