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It takes a particular kind of bloody-mindedness to climb mountains. Not everybody finds the adrenaline surge of vertiginous heights, the likelihood of losing one or more extremities through frostbite, or the prospect of being responsible for your own death or that of your friends, more appealing than watching the latest Bond flick.

When we say someone has a mountain to climb, it’s usually a cliché whose jagged edges have been eroded by overuse.

Occasionally it takes something stark and uncomfortable to put those metaphorical peaks back in perspective, and this week’s report on poverty and social exclusion from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation does just that.

It tells us – and Gordon Brown in particular – that in our ascent of this particular Everest, we haven’t got far above base camp.

What’s more, it looks back over ten years of government attempts to tackle poverty, and concludes that Brown’s direct route to the summit through employment and tax credits has been less successful than Blair’s more circuitous attempt to tackle the problem on a multitude of fronts.

Some of the conclusions are devastating: in particular, the fact that the number of adults on low incomes in working families has now eclipsed the number of adults in poverty where nobody in the household has a job.

This challenges the mantra that work is the high road out of poverty. It would be truer to say that only reasonably-paid work is a route out of poverty.

In the meantime, the safety net of social security is growing threadbare, while the Queen’s speech set out punitive sanctions against benefit claimants who don’t take the required steps towards work – steps which, it appears, may make little difference to their quality of life.

This is bad news for Brown, and the JRF research can’t be dismissed as an aberration.

Earlier this year the Institute for Fiscal Studies’ analysis of the DWP’s Households below average income report came to a broadly similar conclusion: that the progress in the first five years since Labour came to power had slowed significantly.

So as stormy weather sets in, is it time to scurry off the mountain? Gordon Brown clearly doesn’t think so: the Queen’s speech also included a statutory commitment to end child poverty.

And that’s a welcome sign that, for all the disappointments and contradictions, this government may be bloody-minded enough to keep going. If governments won’t stand up for the poorest, who will?

Julian Dobson, editorial director, New Start Online magazine


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