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The Policy Ask with Diane Coyle: “Benefit support does not meet basic needs”

The Cambridge University professor on levelling up and the need to legislate around adequate standards of living.

By Spotlight

Diane Coyle CBE is an economist, a professor of public policy at the University of Cambridge, and co-directs the university’s Bennett Institute for Public Policy. Coyle has also worked as an adviser to the Treasury and was vice-chairman of the BBC Trust in 2011.

How do you start your working day?  

My days vary a lot between term time and holidays, and it also depends on whether it’s a day carved out for research or reading rather than one with meetings and seeing students. The variety is one of the pleasures of my job. In any case, always with coffee.

What has been your career high?    

There hasn’t been a standard arc to my career: I’ve worked as an economic forecaster, a journalist, an economic consultant, a policy adviser, and now as an academic. But in my latest job, it’s a real high every time one of my PhD students passes their viva.

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What has been the most challenging moment of your career?  

Unexpectedly becoming acting chair of the BBC Trust after [Conservative peer] Chris Patten stepped down for health reasons. It was my highest-profile role, and not easy in the face of a hostile government and right-wing press – not to mention BBC own goals.

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If you could give your younger self career advice, what would it be?   

There isn’t a right answer to a lot of the decisions you’ll face. So don’t agonise about what to do, but do decide to make the best of whatever your choice is.

Which political figure inspires you, and why?  

Andy Burnham, and also his predecessors shaping devolution in my home town of Greater Manchester, Richard Leese and Howard Bernstein. It’s unfinished business – combined authorities need more powers devolved to them and also clearer accountability. Their leadership has been the most significant and positive change in the way the UK is governed that I can remember, and that’s in good part thanks to their influence.

What UK policy or fund is the government getting right?  

Levelling up could be a great policy if only it were implemented. Everyone lives somewhere, and many policies that will help people struggling with low incomes and debts will require investing in places – their schools, health service, transport and community facilities.

And what policy should the UK government ditch?  

There are so many candidates. The top priority should be to stop using policies as political footballs, especially when they involve people having to make decisions with lasting effects. Most of us have to think decades ahead but politicians are focused on the next tweet.

What upcoming UK policy or law are you most looking forward to? 

A nerdy answer: legislation on the Digital Markets Unit of the Competition and Markets Authority, as I was on the Furman Review that recommended it to tackle the power and behaviour of big tech companies. Digital services are fantastic but some of the providers are too powerful and don’t acknowledge their social responsibilities.

What piece of international government policy could the UK learn from?  

New Zealand’s well-being framework. It isn’t perfect, but it gets out of the trap of thinking Treasury-style efficiency is the only thing that matters. Policies should have other aims, like fairness or recognition of cultural value, and the need to take sustainability into account. We could learn from a framework that can encompass these.

If you could pass one law this year, what would it be?  

Let’s enshrine in law Article 25 of the UN Declaration of Human Rights, which requires that everyone in the UK has a right to a standard of living adequate for health and well-being. For most benefit claimants, the support they receive is in no way enough to meet even their most basic needs. The national poverty charity Turn2Us recently found that almost half of its service users reported having nothing to live on each week after paying housing costs, council tax and utility bills – hence its campaign to simply ask: “How many more?”

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