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Poverty proofing. Never mind the aspiration, just look at the words and it’s easy to see why the UK government is keen to import it from Ireland.

It looks great on paper: a muscle-bound gatekeeper putting every government policy through its paces, making them prove they aren’t going to harm the country’s poor before they’re let onto the streets.

Unfortunately, words rarely have the power to change anything. In Ireland, eight years of words about poverty proofing achieved little or nothing. Now, there are new words. What was once known as poverty proofing has recently become known as poverty impact assessments. These words suggest something very different - a paper exercise, a form to be filled out and handed in on your way through the door; something you get round by using the right words to explain which bits you’ll amend and which bits you’ll keep ‘under constant review’. You only get called back if you’ve forgotten to fill your name in.

I feel I’m always complaining about bureaucracy, forever grimacing at the soiled sheet beneath the colourful counterpane. But it does seem that many seemingly good ideas boil down to a long form to be filled out, date stamped and filed until it’s asked to put in an appearance at a random monitoring exercise.

The truth of the matter is that poverty proofing can’t be used like fancy dressing on limp salad. It has to involve a fundamental review of the way we do policymaking - and policymakers at all levels need to share the vision and have the capacity to put it into practice.

What do you do when your policy has some negative impacts and some positive ones? When should you rob vulnerable Peter to pay equally vulnerable Paul? How do you balance the different manifestations of poverty eg health, housing, income, education, employment? How do you compile the data in the first place? Is it as robust as it looks? Are there any poverty impact assessment police? If so, who’s got their number and what powers do they have? How do you balance immediate effects with longer term impacts?

Poverty proofing: we love it because it makes something that ought to involve a fundamental overhaul of the way governments approach policymaking, sound like something that can just be slotted into the status quo. If we take that approach poverty proofing, or whatever we want to call it, will remain as empty as words.

Susan Downer, assistant editor

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