Tories urged to scrap ‘outdated’ ideas of poverty

The Conservatives must abandon their “out of date” notion that the welfare state is simply a safety net to keep people above the poverty line, one of their policy groups has warned.

Greg Clark, who chairs the party’s economic failure group, said the Tories must accept that poverty is relative, not absolute – and inequality is a bad thing in itself.

He says the Conservatives should scrap Winston Churchill’s idea of welfare as merely a safety net and look to left-wing commentator Polly Toynbee’s view of society as a caravan, a single unit that risks being split if the people at the back fall too far behind.

“We need a new approach that deals with the reality of social exclusion and works to heal the divisions in our increasingly unequal society,” said Mr Clark, the Conservative MP for Tunbridge Wells and the man charged with reviving the party’s poverty plans.

He said: “If those furthest back fall too far behind, they cease to be part of the whole. Similarly, if the poorest people in this country fall too far behind those further up the income scale our society will pull apart.

“Conservative policy must accept a definition of poverty that is relative, rather than absolute. The old view of poverty as an absolute – a subsistence level – only cares if the caravan is moving forward and doesn’t care if it is breaking up.”

Mr Clark will be publishing a new paper on poverty tomorrow, and it will admit Margaret Thatcher’s decision to ignore relative poverty – how much poorer people were in relation to the rest of the society – was a “terrible mistake”.

He will argue that the Conservatives must return to the one nation ideas of Benjamin Disraeli and Adam Smith and take on the issue of social exclusion. Today, he warned it was “too important an issue to leave to the Labour party”.

Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) welcomed the shift in Tory policy. However, work and pensions secretary John Hutton said it was just “warm words” without any real support or help for children in poverty.

“Behind the slick PR, the real Tory tax plans are for £21 billion cuts to public services and support for families,” he said.

“And just last week we saw where the cuts are likely to fall first, with shadow chancellor George Osborne endorsing a campaign to scrap child tax credits.”

He added: “David Cameron can try to erase the memory of appalling child poverty under the Tories, but he personally opposed the minimum wage, opposed the New Deal and refuses to match Labour’s real commitment to ending child poverty by 2020.”