Isn’t it a shame that in the season of goodwill, the Prime Minister cannot extend any to those who are worst-off in his bold Big Society?
Instead, all they’ve been given are bad statistics and platitudes.
I’m referring, of course, to his performance in the last Prime Minister’s Questions of 2012, when he was asked to explain why there has been a sixfold increase in the number of food banks in the UK during the last three years – the time since Mr Cameron’s Coalition government took over.
A food bank, for those who don’t know the exact definition, is simply a place where food is contributed and made available to those in need. In the UK, there are currently 13 million people living below the poverty line (according to the Trussell Trust, which is the authority on food banks in this country). These include working people, whose income does not cover their costs; the unemployed, who are finding they do not have enough money to buy food due to the vicious and unwarranted benefit cuts thrust upon them by the Coalition; and of course the homeless, a sector of society that is due to grow exponentially, again due to the many cuts inflicted by the bloodthirsty Conservatives.
As a consequence of the rise in poverty, overseen and orchestrated by Mr Cameron and his lieutenant Iain Duncan Smith in the Department for Work and Pensions, the classic poverty-related diseases of rickets and tuberculosis are on the increase. In 2012, the Conservatives have achieved their aim to revive the Dickensian Christmas.
“The problem is that it is working people who are turning to food banks,” said Ed Miliband at PMQs. “One head teacher of a school rated ‘outstanding’ by Ofsted, Vic Goddard, says that even children with a parent or parents in work are often struggling with the choice of heating their homes, buying their children clothes or buying them food. A report last week from the Children’s Society said that two-thirds of teachers knew of staff providing pupils with food or money to prevent them from going hungry.”
This rings true. There is a reason that working people have been receiving benefits, and it is that they are being paid too little. It is a ridiculous situation, in the seventh largest economy on this planet, but one that has been perpetuated by successive governments – including, I’m sorry to say, Labour – since the 1970s. In contrast, executive pay has shot through the roof. If the minimum wage had risen in line with executive pay – just since it was introduced in 1998 – it would be more than £18 today, three times the actual level of £6.19.
The comedy Prime Minister responded with nothing of substance. He said the most important thing was “to get on top of inflation, and inflation is coming down”. How out-of-touch! It is true that inflation must be controlled, but his comedy chancellor,
Gideon George Osborne, has decided that benefits – including those for people in work – will rise by less than the rate of inflation for the next three years, and Cameron himself has indicated that poor economic indicators may see him increase this to six years. The longer this rule stays in place, the further into poverty low-waged working people will go.
“The most important thing is to get more people into work and out of poverty,” said Cameron. This is not the same thing. We have seen that working people in the lowest-paid jobs are being plunged into poverty and forced to the indignity of seeking help from food banks – and remember, those starting in work will be the lowest-paid.
“And we see 600,000 more private sector jobs this year,” added Cameron, failing once again to admit that this figure includes around 200,000 that were already-existing public sector jobs, re-categorised as private in order to boost the Coalition’s statistics.
“We are helping […] families by freezing the council tax,” he said, neglecting to add that he is forcing people with limited cash to – from April – pay at least 10 per cent of it where they would have received council tax benefit before. “And making sure that we help families with the cost of living,” he droned on. This comment is meaningless other than as a complete fabrication. How can he expect to be believed when he is mercilessly forcing them into poverty?
“We have lifted the personal tax allowance and taken two million of the lowest-paid people out of tax altogether,” he said. But they still have to use their own money to make up the huge losses in benefits that are coming. This government gives with one hand but takes with the other.
“Because of the decisions that we made in this Government to increase the child tax credit by £390 ahead of inflation, we have helped those families with their bills and we will continue to do more in the future.” How? Child tax credit will be abolished when Universal Credit is brought in across the UK.
Cameron’s denouement was his declaration that Labour had nothing to offer, “except for the same old something-for-nothing culture that got us in this mess in the first place”. We all know that this is not true. Until the banking crisis, Labour ran a lower deficit than any Conservative government of the previous 30 years. The Conservatives had supported greater deregulation of the banks right up until the crisis hit, meaning that it would have been much worse if they had been in power at the time. And they supported Labour’s actions to solve that crisis – meaning that, if we are in a mess now, the Conservatives should take as much responsibility for it as Labour. They would have done no different.
Possibly the most astonishing moment was when David Cameron said volunteers in food banks were part of his Big Society idea, “to help those in need”. The stated aim of the Big Society was to create a climate that empowers local people and communities, taking power away from politicians and giving it to people. Now, here, Mr Cameron seemed to be saying the opposite – that it is about taking so much away from people that they are forced to rely on charity to survive. It seems, therefore, that the outgoing Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, was correct when he labelled it “aspirational waffle designed to conceal a deeply damaging withdrawal of the state from its responsibilities to the most vulnerable.”
His words were, to some extent, echoed by Ed Miliband at PMQs: “I never thought that the big society was about feeding hungry children in Britain. The reality is that in the third year of the Prime Minister’s Government, more children are going hungry and more families are relying on food banks.
“Is it not the clearest indictment of his Government’s values that while lower and middle-income families are being hit, at the same time he is giving an average of a £107,000 tax cut to people earning over £1 million a year?”
And those were the truest words spoken on the subject.