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Jean Lambert London's Green MEP

European Year for Combatting Poverty and Social Exclusion

Jean Lambert’s speech at the launch event in Leicester, 24/9/2009

76 million EU citizens currently live below the poverty line (set at 60% of a country’s median income). There are a further 36 million at risk of poverty – about 1 in 6 people. 1 in 5 young people are in/ or at risk of poverty.

In the recession, these numbers are rising: Spain currently has a youth unemployment rate of 20%. Child poverty is up. Older people have the same poverty ratio as the young.

There are huge country-to-country variations in these figures. For older people in poverty, we are looking at about 5% in the Czech Republic to 30% for Lithuania and the UK, to 51% for Cyprus.

Even those in work can still find themselves in the poverty figures: about 8% so-called “working-poor”, particularly those on low-pay, with low skills and with a “precarious” work or household structure.

So there is an added relevance to the European Anti-Poverty Year in this time of economic downturn. People are scandalised at the size of bonuses in the financial sector and are asking questions about the structural effect of this on the economy as a whole. How we measure economic well-being is now back on the agenda – we have the recent communication on GDP and Beyond from the Commission and even President Sarkozy is talking about happiness as a measure of success. As a Green, and therefore one who has been questioning the dominance of GDP for years, I am pleased to welcome others to the debate!

We are also facing the challenge of climate change and the need to find effective responses. I see that the plan for the 2010 European Year in this country aims to do a bit of myth-busting about poverty. Could I add a myth of my own to the list? That the environment is only an issue for the well-off!

When we consider the health impacts of climate change – the effect of prolonged heat on the very young, those with respiratory problems, older people – we see groups often affected by poverty. Fuel poverty is an issue we know only too well here: how will poorer people fare as fuel costs rise? Sound, affordable public transport systems are part of the response to lowering emissions – poorer people are more dependent on public transport. Poorer people frequently experience the poorest environments and have few resources to change their situation.

The arguments around tackling poverty within the EU may well sound familiar. There is concern around spending on benefits, yet we know that social transfers have reduced the risk of poverty by about a third (again figures vary from state to state). There is concern about the affordability of pensions and the prospect of raising state pensionable age, yet a flexible retirement age is resisted. Governments are worried about the demographic shift in the EU but cannot really get to grips positively with migration: let’s hope that 2012 will be an effective Year of Intergenerational Solidarity. We see an increase in so-called labour-market activation measures within a context of flexicurity: but we have to ensure that we don’t just demand flexibility from those looking for work or in work, without ensuring the necessary security alongside it (and my Danish colleagues insist that the 3rd part of their much-vaunted system is strong trade unions!). That security presents a challenge for social security systems which are all too often very inflexible, linked to the concept of people either being full-time, ongoing work or not. How can we develop systems that will respond to a world of increasing amounts of casual or part-time work or short-term contracts?

There is also considerable debate around the subject of a minimum income guarantee. Should each EU member State introduce at least a minimum wage? Should there be a core basic income payable to all? On what basis do member States decide their level of social support? What is considered essential for a dignified life?
In December 2008, the Council of Ministers agreed a Recommendation on Active Inclusion which has three main components: adequate income support; inclusive labour markets and access to quality services…active inclusion policies are intended for all those excluded from the labour market by supporting them with the resources they need to lead a dignified life and with opportunities for social participation, and promoting access to quality and lasting employment that corresponds to their aptitudes and abilities; (para 19)

So, how to engage with this process? We have, of course, our National Action Plans within the open Method of Coordination. What else?

Well, in the UK we have a General Election next year, where many of these issues will take centre stage: access to quality services for example – the provision of stable housing that is affordable, education, health, long-term care. So many of these areas are essential to combating poverty. How can we deliver adequate income support? What are the implications for pensions, housing benefit, child allowance? How can we deliver an inclusive labour market? What confidence should we have concerning these issue with those who want to come out of the Social Chapter?

The economic downturn has made these issues relevant to the many and challenges the myth of the “feckless poor”, when people who feel they have done everything “right” look the risk of poverty in the face. Poverty is not a choice and can happen to anyone. There are many faces to poverty, not just those of that of Wayne and Waynetta!

There is an active face and we need to build the resilience of communities as well as individuals:

Resilience in the local economy through mechanisms such as credit unions, LETS, micro-credit
In local production: for example, through food production on allotments or in community gardens
Mental health and well-being, through social activity, whether that’s environmental improvements, voluntary visiting schemes or a whole host of other activities
Training opportunities, not least to reduce the digital divide within and between generations.

How can we amplify the voice of those experiencing poverty? How can we increase engagement at all levels? Are the local Trades councils and Chambers of Commerce being approached about 2010? The Transition Towns movement is interested in issues of local economy and well-being. All the organisations involved in Make Poverty History need to be pulled into getting active in 2010 to make a difference here and to reinforce the importance of the Millennium Development Goals. There are lots of ideas in this room today.

It is a disgrace that in one of the richest regions of the world we still have people who go bed hungry because they cannot afford to eat; who cannot afford to keep warm or who have no roof over their head.

The European Year for Combating Poverty and Social Exclusion offers an opportunity to challenge the policies that keep people poor and which do not offer the opportunity to live in dignity.

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