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18 March 2015updated 25 Jul 2021 4:30am

Everything wrong with Priti Patel’s denial that the government is responsible for poverty

By Anoosh Chakelian

Priti Patel, the Home Secretary, is the type of Tory with big plans for a small state. As one of those behind the neo-Thatcherite 2012 book, Britannia Unchained, her free market, libertarian instincts have been clear for a long time.

An interview she gave today on a campaign visit to Barrow-in-Furness, the Cumbrian Tory target home to the Trident shipyard, exposed how ludicrous such an ideological viewpoint can be.

When confronted, by a BBC North West reporter, with the fact that, in some parts of Barrow, four in ten children are born into poverty, Patel’s response was not what should change for those children – but that it wasn’t the government’s responsibility.

“It’s appalling,” she said, “and, of course, but everybody, not just people in Westminster, it’s not just at a national level, it’s at a local level.”

When reminded that the government has been in for nearly ten years, and therefore must take some responsibility, she responded:

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“It’s not the government, though, is it? Everybody just says it’s the government as if it’s this sort of like bland blob that you know, you can just go and blame, it’s actually… it’s not because it’s all parts of society and the structures, local authorities have a role to play, education, public services, which are locally-led and locally run.”

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There is a lot wrong with this statement.

The “it’s local!” trick

One of the most insidious features of the austerity agenda is that it was meted out in a way that local authorities would have to shoulder the blame. Local services, like social care, housing, roads, bins, libraries, etc, are run by councils, so the government stays one step removed from the impact of its cuts.

Patel is basically giving voice to that trick here, by saying “it’s at a local level”, mentioning “local authorities” and “locally-led and locally run”, in order to suggest local politicians or the council have to take responsibility rather than “people in Westminster” or central government.

Yes, you do get councils that run things badly and make poor decisions on how to spend the little money they’ve been left with. But by next year they will have lost almost 60 per cent of their central government funding since 2010. They are stretched to the breaking point of public services, and because of this, the government is able to keep the blame at arm’s length.

Actually, it’s not

It’s bizarre for Patel to suggest local authorities, education and public services are not the responsibility of government. The government funds local authorities that provide public services, and education has been dramatically centralised via the Tories’ academies reform.

Poverty isn’t a local thing

Child poverty isn’t unique to Barrow, so Patel cannot claim that it’s a local issue. In fact, in ten constituencies more than half of children now live below the poverty line, according to the End Child Poverty coalition. Overall, about 500,000 more children are in relative poverty compared with 2010, so levels have risen under Conservative-led governments.

Bland blob

The description of the state as a “bland blob” is part of Patel and her fellow libertarian Tories’ mindset. It also completely jars with the kind of election campaign Boris Johnson is trying to run, based on big headline spending commitments and suggesting a shift away from cutting the state via austerity measures.

This makes Patel’s viewpoint utterly contradictory – you can’t in one breath say communities should take responsibility for their own problems and in another say the government will solve everything with its shiny new spending pledges. It’s also a problem for Johnson that he has key ministers who voice these things, as he tries to avoid reminding lower-income voters in traditionally Labour-voting seats what they dislike about the Conservative Party.

Watch the interview here: