Warrior on want

August 30, 1996

Blessed are the poor ... for they have Peter Townsend fighting their corner. Which is just as well because, as he argues, the Tories have systematically unpicked the British welfare safety net. Huw Richards reports.

In recent years evangelical Christians have taken to snaring the attention of television cameras at sporting events, particularly in the United States, with placards inscribed "John iii: 16". It is hard to imagine Peter Townsend doing anything quite so ostentatious - but there would be a certain logic if he were to do the rounds of the social science and policy-making circuits proclaiming "John xii: 8": "The poor always ye have with you."

Townsend, not to be confused with his namesake who failed to marry Princess Margaret, has devoted a long and rich academic career to the study of poverty, its extent and causes. His first publication, Poverty Ten Years After Beveridge, written for Political and Economic Planning, forerunner of the Policy Studies Institute, dates back to 1952. This autumn, at the age of 68 - looking like a younger, dapper Michael Foot - he is set to become a TV star as chair of Channel Four's Commission on Poverty. "We are travelling to different parts of Britain and overseas, talking to people who are concerned with or victims of poverty, looking at its extent and causes and possible measures against it," he says.

Rather like a Royal Commission, although Townsend notes that no Royal Commission ever supplemented its research with the requirement that it generate several hours of compelling television. And his colleagues, while few in number, have a suitably great-and-good feel: Stephen Tumin, former chief inspector of prisons, Prue Leith, president of the Royal Society of Arts, and Jatinder Verma, director of Tara Arts.

Poverty may have slipped down the list of political priorities, but Townsend, who retired last year from the chair of social policy he held at Bristol University for 15 years, is in little doubt about its fundamental importance as an issue. "The key question of our time is how to deal with structural problems of social polarisation. And the greatest problem is that it is not regarded as a priority. There is a complete absence of any practical strategy or plan for even starting to deal with the problem," he says.

His real scorn is directed at the Conservatives who have run the country since 1979 and in particular at Margaret Thatcher, following her now infamous remark about society's nonexistence: "When you have people saying there is no such thing as society, it is rather like finding yourself back in the 17th century with people saying that the earth is flat. It is extraordinary when you consider that 30 years ago there were people like Iain Macleod and Reginald Maudling who, whatever one thought of them otherwise, had no doubt that these issues were of common concern."

The Conservative record on poverty looks particularly bad when seen from the perspective of Townsend's distinctive contributions to the debate. These were developed most strongly in his massive Poverty In The United Kingdom, which offers definitions of the concepts of relative poverty and of multiple deprivation. He dislikes poverty-line definitions based mechanistically on proportions of average income, arguing that poverty is better understood in social terms as "the absence or inadequacy of those diets, amenities, standards, services and activities which are common or customary in society".

Such deprivation operates at two levels: "One is money and the other is inability to fulfil the obligations to family and community expected by society." Since the mid-1980s, he argues, the Government has abandoned the subsistence standard used over the previous 40 years to define poverty and policy towards it, without finding a replacement. "There is no minimum, no bottom line, no safety net, no principles or statement of what income for British citizens is minimally adequate," he said in a paper coauthored in 1989 with Bristol colleague David Gordon.

He is particularly enraged by the propensity of British governments to look across the Atlantic rather than the Channel for solutions: "Absolutely daft. A far more sensible approach would have been to look at societies which have been more successful in addressing these problems - Scandinavia, Austria or even Germany and France."

And he argues that the British assault on welfare has gone rather beyond that in the United States, despite the rhetoric associated with Reaganism in the 1980s. "The Americans ultimately stood by their social security system under Reagan. We haven't, with more than 30 pieces of erosion."

Some have had a striking impact. Townsend cites in particular the breaking of the link that applied in the 1970s between pensions and average earnings: "If that still applied the single person's pension would be Pounds 85 per week. Instead it is Pounds 61.15."

But are the social partnership economies of continental Europe not now moving in the direction defined by Britain and the US, cutting back on social benefits to safeguard economic competitiveness by moderating crippling social costs? "Only marginally and from a much higher base. If you want to make a comparison, the Dutch basic pension has a purchasing power equivalent to around Pounds 120 per week - or double that of Britain. In addition to that there is a weekly holiday allowance that can build up over the year to as much as Pounds 29 per week. So they are at a totally different stage."

He is contemptuous of arguments that our society cannot afford a welfare state. "If we could afford it in the 1960s we can certainly afford it now, when our overall wealth is so much greater."

Despite being married to a Labour MP, Jean Corston, elected in 1992 for Bristol East, Townsend does not spare the Labour party from his strictures. But there is a measured moderation in his comment that Labour is "far too impressed with the development of international markets and the difficulties created for politicians in a single country who may want to adopt measures which modify the development of that market".

Invariably, whenever his work is reviewed, the word "committed" is to be found somewhere. A double-edged term if ever there were one, with one man's commitment being another's ideological bias. A strict upholder of academic independence and scruple, he also recognises that there is a moral dimension in any debate about poverty. "I reacted morally to the conditions I saw in people's lives when I was growing up in Pimlico, to the 'Other Cambridge' when I was a student and then in Bethnal Green after my military service. I was outraged that people had to live like that," he says.

Townsend is determined to ensure that the Commission on Poverty programmes reflect the highest possible standards of independent research - deprecating the example set by the Anson Committee on pensions, which was sponsored by the National Association of Pension Funds. He argues that such provenance compromised the committee before it even started work, and has attacked its findings as "scaremongering" and much more in the commercial interests of the sponsoring funds than those of present or prospective pensioners.

On the optimistic side he cites the example of the Black report on health inequalities: "The Government tried to sneak it out on a Bank Holiday in 1980 when they hoped nobody would be looking and limited the publication to 250 cyclostyled copies. This had the result that both health professionals and the press wondered what it was that the Government was so keen to hide. The committee held their own press conference, it was a huge splash in the media and the issues raised by the report have rumbled on ever since and had a considerable influence on the World Health Organisation."

He believes that international factors deepen poverty - his 1993 work The International Analysis of Poverty examined inter alia the extent to which the growth of First World poverty could be related to economic globalisation. He cites research showing that the gap between the richest 20 per cent of the world's population and the poorest 20 per cent grew in dollar equivalents from 30:1 to 61:1 between 1960 and 1994. In consequence, he argues, combative measures have also to be international - although he recognises the political difficulties that this would immediately raise, not least in Britain.

Townsend was initially destined for a career in journalism - he edited Varsity while at Cambridge and had a book of articles, The Other Cambridge, published complete with foreword by E. M. Forster. But military service convinced him that writing and analytical skills might be put to different uses.

The job at PEP steered him into research and a career as one of the key pioneers of British sociology - cofounder with Michael Young and Peter Willmott of the Institute of Community Studies in 1954 and then in 1963 the first professor in the University of Essex's influential sociology department. "I was the first person appointed after the vice chancellor. My 18 years there were the best period of my life intellectually and a very good period for British intellectual life as a whole. My 15 years at Bristol coincided with a period which was downhill all the way, with continuous cuts and threats to research. I still don't see the light at the end of the tunnel and I worry about the desperate effect this is having on the chances of brilliant young people, " he says.

He feels similar concern about his own discipline of sociology: "I have always argued that planning and policy should be at the heart of the subject. This would give it a core and a coherence in helping to explain how society develops."

Such debates, like the poor, will it seems always be with us.

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