Poverty Reduction

Baroness Lane-Fox of Soho Excerpts
Thursday 22nd February 2024

(3 months ago)

Lords Chamber
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Baroness Lane-Fox of Soho Portrait Baroness Lane-Fox of Soho (CB)
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My Lords, I too thank the noble Lord, Lord Bird, for his timely debate and his relentless and indefatigable championing of this issue. I declare my interests, most particularly as president of the British Chambers of Commerce and chancellor of the Open University.

I will make three brief points. The first is about business and its role in helping with this issue. I have been travelling around the country as president of the British Chambers of Commerce. I am not going to share my travel diary, but I have most recently been in Preston, Coventry, Doncaster, Poole and Glasgow, and, with the British Chambers of Commerce, I have launched bits of work that look at how we can rejuvenate our economy over the next decade—a kind of playbook for whatever shade of Government we find ourselves with later in the year. The most recent work we did was about the future of the local economy, and I will emphasise how important it feels to make sure that we do not only join up policy across central government but that we link that, as the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, mentioned, with local government and its fundamental role in helping drive local economies that we know are so essential in providing high-quality work and fuelling the economy to enable any of the choices that we are talking about in this debate.

When the British Chambers has been doing this work, we have been trying to reinforce three key planks: we need high-quality local leadership around these issues to make sure that local economies and communities have got the best possible talent around them; we need better collaboration with business at a local level to ensure that we have got, not just the acceptable jobs or jobs that are paying, but jobs that provide the quality that my noble friend Lady D’Souza was talking about; and we need to make sure that we have enough devolution and power locally to enable these communities to build resilience.

There are examples, and I can think of many British Chambers members that are doing interesting projects to help from different angles to build that local resilience, which will help local poverty and local issues. In Old Trafford, Trafford Council is working with a company called Bruntwood; they are doing a huge redevelopment of 24,000 square feet in the area that is generating green pathways, new transport links and big infrastructure investment. But it has taken a lot of work to get to that point with that triumvirate of different groups working together and I believe deeply that we will not help with working on the prevent part of the PECC framework created by the noble Lord, Lord Bird, if we do not think about how to drive that business-led change at a local level and open up collaboration.

As I said, there are examples. There is the one in Trafford and, last week, Aviva launched a project with the British Chambers that looks at local planners, to help build high-quality jobs at a very specific level; we are really trying to find diverse people to train and become local planners. These will be high-quality jobs offered in communities that did not have those opportunities before; just 100 jobs to start with, but we hope to build and scale that over time. So the first point is that it is really important to emphasise that local co-ordination; as if the challenge of central government was not big enough, we must not forget local council integration as well.

The second point—and this is where I fear I will become a bit like the noble Lord, Lord Bird—is around digitisation. I have stood here many times and sometimes I feel like I am talking into a void. It is unacceptable that we think that 95% connectivity in this country is okay: it is not. We will never be able to connect communities that are completely outside the normal ways that we operate if we do not have the infrastructure, skills and digital ability to connect them. It is not just a question of alleviating poverty: it is a question of social justice.

Last week, I talked in a debate with the noble Baroness, Lady Stowell, and her Communications and Digital Committee, on a very good report about digital exclusion, but I fear the Minister’s responses did not please many on the committee and they certainly did not please me either, unfortunately. I ask with respect how the Government are thinking about the connections between digital disconnection and exclusion, because we know that of the 2.5 million people who do not use the internet, at least 60% to 70% of them fall into the lowest socioeconomic groups. We also know that you are unable to look for work if you are not looking online; 90% of jobs are advertised only online, so you are caught in a horrible nexus. Digitisation is such an important plank of how we will address the P part of the PECC from the noble Lord, Lord Bird. Local issues and digitisation are fundamental to helping us address poverty in this country.

I will offer one moment of hope before I sit down. If I have achieved anything, I think that one of the small things that I have contributed is building GOV.UK and the government digital service. I mention that partly because it is directly related to access to information and how people can find some of the services for them, but, more importantly, because it is sometimes possible to join up government and policy. When I think back to that project from 2010 to 2015, I ask, what made it marginally successful? There were three things. The first is prime ministerial support; I cannot overemphasise how important it is that a priority comes from the top. That speaks to the point from the noble Lord, Lord Bird; we hear language, but I am not clear that it has ever been a key priority for the Prime Minister to put poverty at the heart of an action plan.

The second is political support and leadership in the Civil Service and in the department. That project was being driven by the noble Lord, Lord Maude, and we also had Civil Service leaders driving it; that took a huge amount of work and more entrepreneurial effort than I have ever had to deploy, but it is possible to join it up.

Finally, we had a clear focus and some measurements and actions at the end of it. That project was flawed, and I do not remind people of it to sound successful or blow my own trumpet—quite the opposite. But it is possible to join up policy and it needed those three things. I leave the Minister with those three things, and I would be interested in his reflections on all of them: local government and its leadership and its ability to join up with central government on these issues; digitisation and not accepting that 95% is good enough, because it is not; and, finally, how we can take those lessons from some of the successful projects in government.