Poverty made in Britain

On Friday evening On Iain Dale’s LBC programme, I was on with the urbane Nadhim Zahawi, Tory MP for Stratford-Upon-Avon, who claimed nearly £6,000 for heating his stables and £170, 000 in expenses in 2012-13. We argued about benefits cuts and rising poverty. He stated forcefully that  ‘reforms’ enable claimants to move on and up, regurgitating Tory propaganda. When he was nine, his Kurdish family fled Saddam’s repressive Iraq and settled here. It must have been hard. So the boy done good and done the party good too. See? They love striving migrants.

I too am a migrant who has found some success. But unlike Zahawi, I cannot forget the hard times, both back in Uganda and for the first years here. For most people raised in poverty, that fear and fragility still lurks inside, ghosts of times past.  My mother cooked and sewed for people; my father worked sporadically and disappeared for years. Sometimes the neighbours sent us food because the electricity was cut off and there were weevils in the lentils. My only brother, eleven years older than me had to leave school and work. He got rich but drank too much, was never able to be happy, died too young. My sister is mentally ill and hardly speaks.

Today, in the seventh richest country in the world, this government is on an ideological mission to punish and degrade the poor. Those who question the mission are savaged. It is political sadism. Cameron, Osborne, Ian Duncan Smith and others inflict incalculable pain on the most dispossessed because they can. The psychological harm to them and their families is irreversible. Mental health problems are increasing and services are unable to cope.  In the last fortnight, Vincent Nichols, Catholic Archbishop of Westminster, has spoken up against the welfare policies which are leading to extreme poverty and at the start of Lent,  27 leading Anglican leaders wrote an open letter in the Daily Mirror expressing their disquiet about spreading hunger even among families where adults work. Rowan Williams went further. Those on benefits, he wrote, were not ‘scroungers’ but people who had no other options. ( Why haven’t Rabbis and Imams joined this truly moral crusade? )

Food banks are reporting increased demand and some are seeing people seeking sustenance who were once entirely self –reliant. There are three food banks in Hart in Hampshire, recently named the most desirable location in the UK to live. In my visits to food banks, I have met a teacher in his thirties who is now on disability benefits, a businessman widower who went bankrupt and a young mum from a housing estate whose three kids had eaten nothing for two days. The children were listless and unnaturally quiet, even when they were given a biscuit. She sobbed when we spoke and said she had thought of suicide so her children could go to homes where the cupboards are full. Some claimants are indeed idle or cheats, others drunks, smokers and gamblers. That would be true of all classes. But all children still deserve life chances. Remember the Big Society?  

Now George Eustice, the ‘food minister’,  finally admits that ‘families are struggling to afford to feed themselves’. Well, George old boy, where have ITALS PREVIOUS WD you been? On a space mission to Mars? Or just not peeping out from behind the gold Jacquard curtains of your privileged life? A review by academics at Warwick University  commissioned by the government on this crisis was completed last June. Its findings have just been released after much editing: though privation is indeed growing, it is hard to make a clear link between that and policies. Really? Meanwhile a Scottish government report has found that missing link. Obviously can’t trust those Scots.   

This Sunday, ‘radical’ coalition plans were helpfully leaked to the press. The government may reduce energy and water bills and hand food vouchers to the needy. They are running to catch up. Or maybe show willing, that’s all. Too late already.

In 2010, the respected IFS, an independent financial research organisation warned that by 2013, hundreds of thousands more children would be living in absolute poverty and that there would be the largest fall in median incomes since between 1974 and 1977. Fuel poverty was predicted to kill over 20,000 people, according to the Mail last autumn. Alison Graham, chief executive of the Child Poverty Action Group, has repeatedly said ministers are in denial about the extent of deprivation. They weren’t in denial; it was part of their cunning plan. Planned poverty. How can that be acceptable in a western nation? Unless the government changes course radically and finds its compassion ( won’t happen) those who vote for the Conservatives in the next election, will be assenting to policies which humiliate and mortify millions of men, woman and their children while they try to survive on starvation wages and punitive benefits. Democracy is, after all, responsibility. Is that what you want?   

The Independent, 24/2/14