Improving motherhood means reducing inequality, not just poverty

The UK is a worse country in which to be a mother than many poorer nations, according to Save the Children.

Yesterday’s papers painted a gloomy picture for mums in the UK. According to research by Save the Children, the UK is only the 23rd best country to be a mother, behind Portugal, Greece and a number of other countries suffering economic torpor. If we are to have any chance of improving the lives of mothers in the UK it is crucial to look at the measurements used to determine a mother’s wellbeing, and the drivers behind these?  

The report, which looks at 176 countries, assesses mothers' wellbeing against five indicators: lifetime risk of maternal death, under-five mortality rate, expected number of years of formal schooling, gross national income per capita and the participation of women in national government. 

For those at the bottom of the index it delivers a harrowing account of motherhood in developing countries.  One of the report’s main findings is that “Babies born to mothers living in the greatest poverty face the greatest challenges to survival.” With the bottom 10 countries on the index all residing in sub-Saharan Africa, an area of the world blighted by poverty and poor investment in education and health services, this seems an astute observation. Poverty clearly impacts significantly on the wellbeing of mothers and babies across the globe.

But is poverty the only indicator of wellbeing for mothers? If this is the case, presumably the richest nations are also the best countries to be a mother. Not exactly. The US, the world’s wealthiest nation, is only 30th on the list – below Lithuania and Belarus. By most measures Luxembourg and Qatar are in the top three countries for GDP per capita, but they are just 29th and 58th respectively on the index.

The top spot is instead reserved for Finland, the world’s 41st richest nation. If wealth alone cannot explain positive outcomes for mothers, we must look at other reasons. We know that more unequal countries in the developed world have higher rates of infant mortality, lower scores for child wellbeing and poorer educational performances for children than more equal countries. The top three countries (Finland, Sweden and Norway) on the Mother’s Index are also all in the top 7 OECD countries for income distribution equality.

Reducing poverty is an important measure in lifting the living standards of women and children in the poorest countries. But for those in the richest countries, we must look to reduce income inequality, in addition to raising the incomes of the poorest, to provide better outcomes for all mothers. 

Photograph: Getty Images

Duncan Exley is the director of the Equality Trust

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There is nothing compassionate about Britain’s Dickensian tolerance of begging

I was called “heartless” for urging police to refer beggars to support services. But funding drug habits to salve a liberal conscience is the truly cruel approach.

In Rochdale, like many other towns across the country, we’re working hard to support small businesses and make our high streets inviting places for people to visit. So it doesn’t help when growing numbers of aggressive street beggars are becoming a regular fixture on the streets, accosting shoppers.

I’ve raised this with the police on several occasions now and when I tweeted that they needed to enforce laws preventing begging and refer them to appropriate services, all hell broke loose on social media. I was condemned as heartless, evil and, of course, the favourite insult of all left-wing trolls, “a Tory”.

An article in the Guardian supported this knee-jerk consensus that I was a typically out-of-touch politician who didn’t understand the underlying reasons for begging and accused me of being “misguided” and showing “open disdain” for the poor. 

The problem is, this isn’t true, as I know plenty about begging.

Before I became an MP, I worked as a researcher for The Big Issue and went on to set up a social research company that carried out significant research on street begging, including a major report that was published by the homeless charity, Crisis.

When I worked at The Big Issue, the strapline on the magazine used to say: “Working not Begging”. This encapsulated its philosophy of dignity in work and empowering people to help themselves. I’ve seen many people’s lives transformed through the work of The Big Issue, but I’ve never seen one person’s life transformed by thrusting small change at them as they beg in the street.

The Big Issue’s founder, John Bird, has argued this position very eloquently over the years. Giving to beggars helps no one, he says. “On the contrary, it locks the beggar in a downward spiral of abject dependency and victimhood, where all self-respect, honesty and hope are lost.”

Even though he’s now doing great work in the House of Lords, much of Bird’s transformative zeal is lost on politicians. Too many on the right have no interest in helping the poor, while too many on the left are more interested in easing their conscience than grappling with the hard solutions required to turn chaotic lives around.

But a good starting point is always to examine the facts.

The Labour leader of Manchester City Council, Richard Leese, has cited evidence that suggests that 80 per cent of street beggars in Manchester are not homeless. And national police figures have shown that fewer than one in five people arrested for begging are homeless.

Further research overwhelmingly shows the most powerful motivating force behind begging is to fund drug addiction. The homeless charity, Thames Reach, estimates that 80 per cent of beggars in London do so to support a drug habit, particularly crack cocaine and heroin, while drug-testing figures by the Metropolitan Police on beggars indicated that between 70 and 80 per cent tested positive for Class A drugs.

It’s important to distinguish that homelessness and begging can be very different sets of circumstances. As Thames Reach puts it, “most rough sleepers don’t beg and most beggars aren’t rough sleepers”.

And this is why they often require different solutions.

In the case of begging, breaking a chaotic drug dependency is hard and the important first step is arrest referral – ie. the police referring beggars on to specialised support services.  The police approach to begging is inconsistent – with action often only coming after local pressure. For example, when West Midlands Police received over 1,000 complaints about street begging, a crackdown was launched. This is not the case everywhere, but only the police have the power to pick beggars up and start a process that can turn their lives around.

With drug-related deaths hitting record levels in England and Wales in recent years, combined with cuts to drug addiction services and a nine per cent cut to local authority health budgets over the next three years, all the conditions are in place for things to get a lot worse.

This week there will be an important homelessness debate in Parliament, as Bob Blackman MP's Homelessness Reduction Bill is due to come back before the House of Commons for report stage. This is welcome legislation, but until we start to properly distinguish the unique set of problems and needs that beggars have, I fear begging on the streets will increase.

Eighteen years ago, I was involved in a report called Drugs at the Sharp End, which called on the government to urgently review its drug strategy. Its findings were presented to the government’s drugs czar Keith Hellawell on Newsnight and there was a sense that the penny was finally dropping.

I feel we’ve gone backwards since then. Not just in the progress that has been undone through services being cut, but also in terms of general attitudes towards begging.

A Dickensian tolerance of begging demonstrates an appalling Victorian attitude that has no place in 21st century Britain. Do we really think it’s acceptable for our fellow citizens to live as beggars with no real way out? And well-meaning displays of “compassion” are losing touch with pragmatic policy. This well-intentioned approach is starting to become symptomatic of the shallow, placard-waving gesture politics of the left, which helps no one and has no connection to meaningful action.

If we’re going make sure begging has no place in modern Britain, then we can’t let misguided sentiment get in the way of a genuine drive to transform lives through evidenced-based effective policy.

Simon Danczuk is MP for Rochdale.