One in five of the UK population is living in poverty, more children and pensioners are in poverty now than five years ago, working single parents have been swept fastest into poverty and in-work poverty is on the rise.
That catalogue of calamity is the legacy of all the Conservative and Tory-led governments of the last 10 years, according to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.
And Labour has had the sense to bring the main points to the attention of the public.
Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary Margaret Greenwood said: “This report should be a wake-up call for the government.
“Too many people are trapped in low paid insecure work and all too often the social security system fails to give people the support they need.
“The government should make tackling poverty a top priority by providing a living wage of at least £10 an hour for all workers aged 16 and over and create a social security system that treats people with respect and is there for any one of us in our time of need.”
That was Labour’s policy at the last election, of course.
There’s nothing wrong with trying to get Labour policy enacted by the Tories but it will not happen.
The impoverishment of working people has been Tory policy since Margaret Thatcher, Nicholas Ridley and Keith Joseph drew up their plan to smash the power of the unions and hammer living standards back down below the poverty line, back in the 1970s.
Take away a worker’s security and he or she will accept any job at any price, becoming easy prey to exploitation by unscrupulous profiteers.
(So much for the ‘laissez-faire’ economics expounded by Thatcher’s neoliberal philosophy! They rigged it for their own benefit.)
The JRF has put forward its own policy solutions to poverty in the UK, as follows:
“We need as many people as possible to be in good jobs. While the proportion of people in employment has risen consistently for six years, weak local economies in some parts of the country have led to higher unemployment, underemployment and more low pay than in the UK as a whole. This needs to change, with prospects for people in struggling places needing to be prioritised, or progress will stall. In addition, employment among disabled people and carers is still low, and they should be supported to work when they can.
“We need to improve earnings for low-income working families, helping people in the lowest-paid jobs or working part-time. Too many people are stuck in low-paid, insecure jobs, with little chance of progression and too few hours of work to reach a decent living standard. Workers need more security, better training and opportunities to progress, particularly in part-time jobs. In-work poverty must be seen as a critical issue for our economy and given high priority by economic policy-makers.
“We need to strengthen the benefits system so that it provides the anchor that people need in tough times. The current system needs to be improved to ensure it gives adequate support. We also need the system to offer a better service for people using it, and to shift public thinking so that a poverty-fighting social security system is seen as an essential public service and receives sustainable investment.
“We need to increase the amount of low-cost housing available for families on low incomes, and increase support for people with high housing costs. We also need to address the sense of insecurity felt by many people living in the private rented sector.”
Castles in the air.
The Conservatives spent nearly 50 years getting poverty up to the current level.
They’re hardly going to reverse a policy that is working so well for them.
Have YOU donated to my crowdfunding appeal, raising funds to fight false libel claims by TV celebrities who should know better? These court cases cost a lot of money so every penny will help ensure that wealth doesn’t beat justice.
We are entitled to expect a better quality of reporting than this from the BBC:
The proportion of households in the UK where no-one is working is at its lowest point for over 20 years, the Office for National Statistics says.
The figures show 14.3% of households containing working-age adults are “workless” – down 0.2% compared with the same point last year.
Fewer children were living in families where no-one was currently working.
The employment figures show a picture of rising levels of work in the 21 million households with people aged between 16 and 64.
There are fewer workless families now than at any point in a data series going back to 1996.
If you’re wondering what’s wrong with it, the answer is simple: No mention is made of the fact that there is more in-work poverty now than at any time in the UK’s recent history, due to the pay-less policies of the Conservative government.
In a tweet responding to the biased BBC report, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation stated: “Work should be a route out of poverty. It’s not right that despite the percentage of workless households being at a 20 year low, the percentage of households in poverty is at a 20 year high.”
The BBC’s bias is all the more shocking because the corporation claims to make a point of presenting both sides of any story.
What a fawning failure – sucking up to the Tories again.
A project aiming to define an ‘adequate’ income in the UK has shown that the National Minimum Wage falls far short of what is required, according to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.
The organisation’s research is based on what members of the public think is enough money to live on, to maintain a socially-acceptable quality of life, examining changes in living costs and the tax and benefits system. It compares incomes on benefits and on the National Minimum Wage to the ‘Minimum Income Standard’ (MIS).
According to the JRF, the cost of a decent standard of living, as defined by the public, has stopped rising for the first time since the recession began – but the gap between people’s incomes and the amount they need to cover their essential costs has widened greatly since 2008.
The figures generated by MIS are used to calculate the Living Wage outside London and assess the impact of public policy on people’s living standards. JRF research has also used it to explore how far Universal Credit will help people reach an adequate income.
Of particular interest will be the following image, showing the lie being fed to us by the Conservative Government with its benefit cap. It seems a couple with two children need to receive £20,000 each to meet the Minimum Income Standard – while the Tories say £23,000 in total is enough.
For completeness, here’s the JRF’s graph showing how far short the system falls, for people on particular out-of-work benefits:
Don’t you just hate it when politicians rig the statistics to show ‘facts’ that are demonstrably untrue?
According to the Conservative Party, the number of children in poverty has fallen by 300,000 under the Coalition Government – but poverty is measured as a percentage of average income; when the nation’s average income drops, poverty is said to have dropped as well, even though this is clearly untrue.
According to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, “Those with less than 60 per cent of median income are classified as poor. This ‘poverty line’ is the agreed international measure used throughout the European Union.”
Here in the UK, wages have suffered their longest-sustained fall for no less than 150 years.
Average incomes in the years up to 2012. This is the most up-to-date graph I have. Source: ONS.
So no wonder the BBC and the Mirror are reporting that children are arriving at school in “Victorian squalor”. This is what the Coalition Government wants.
The BBC reported: “Claims about poverty in the school-age population will be heard at the NASUWT teachers’ union annual conference in Cardiff. The union asked members for their experiences and received almost 2,500 responses. It was not a representative sample of teachers, but among those replying more than two in three reported seeing pupils come to school hungry.
“Almost one in four of the teachers who responded said they had brought in food for pupils who were hungry, and an even higher proportion had seen the school feeding pupils.
“More than three in four had seen pupils arriving at school with “inappropriate clothing” such as no socks or coats in bad weather.
“Similar numbers claimed that a bad diet meant that pupils were unable to concentrate on their work.”
The Liberal Democrats said they had helped families by introducing free school meals for all infant children. That’s the caring side of the Coalition Government for you. Rather than sort out the underlying problems – that they created – they put a patch on it and say it’s solved.
Meanwhile, a Tory spokesman said – get this: “Because of our policies, there are more jobs than ever before, wages are rising faster than prices and with the lowest inflation on record, family budgets are starting to go further. The NASUWT should recognise how the Conservatives have rescued the economy, and through that, delivering the jobs that secure a better future for families.”
Jobs that pay far too little to make any real difference – 28 per cent of them are on insecure zero-hours contracts.
Who do these selfish toffs think they’re fooling?
We must get rid of them before they cause any more harm to our children.
Poverty rates by 2040, according to the JRF: The different levels, marked out by differently-coloured bars, show the effect if social rents rise at one per cent above inflation per year, or to meet market values.
When a Conservative-run government messes up your life, it doesn’t go in for half measures!
Earlier today you all read how the Conservative Party had miscalculated – badly – the effect of its ‘welfare reforms’, meaning that people were being forced into expensive privately-rented accommodation by the Bedroom Tax, then claiming more in Housing Benefit because their wages were not rising fast enough to accommodate the increase.
(Wages have, of course, been held down because the government’s insistence on cutting the amount paid to the unemployed has created an underclass of people desperate to take any job available – meaning employers can brush off calls for wage rises by saying hundreds of other people would be happy to do these jobs for less.)
The Joseph Rowntree Foundation has put flesh on the bones of these findings in a report published yesterday (November 17).
It states that “compared to 2008, private rents will rise by 90 per cent – more than twice as fast as incomes – pushing up to 50 per cent of private renters into poverty”. The average private rent today is £132 per week – it will be £250 per week in 2040 in real terms.
“People who rent will be more than twice as likely to be living in poverty than homeowners.
“Private rents are forecast to rise by 90%, twice as fast as incomes.
“One in five (10.6 million people) will be living in private rented homes, up from 7.2 million today. Half of these, 5.7 million, will be in poverty (a rise of 2.6 million).
“One in 10 will be living in social housing, down from the current figure of 8.2 million to 5.7 million in 2040. Social rents will increase 39% to reach £92.10 per week in real terms.
“If social rents continue to rise towards market rates, the cost of Housing Benefit could rise by 125% – adding £20 billion to the current bill.
“Real median house prices for owners will increase to £263,000, a rise of 57%. 35.3 million people will be home owners by 2040 (a reduction of 820,000 people from 2008). Real household incomes will grow from £32,300 to £45,500.”
In light of these figures, JRF has called on the government and housing providers to work together to solve the housing crisis and keep poverty in check, saying poverty levels are likely to reach one in four by 2040.
“The reality facing many people is a life below the poverty line because of the extortionate cost of keeping a roof over your head,” said JRF chief executive Julia Unwin.
JRF reckons this growth in poverty can be contained if:
Housing supply doubles to more than 200,000 units a year;
Social rents continue to go up by inflation plus 1%, rather than move towards market rents;
Housing benefit continues to support housing costs at similar levels;
The fall in the proportion of affordable social housing in the overall market is halted.
Of course that is a forlorn hope under any Conservative-run government.
The increase in poverty levels to one in every four people should worry everyone – if it doesn’t affect you, then it will affect somebody in your family or somebody you know. It is clear that this is the intended result of Conservative-led government policy, and the Liberal Democrats have supported it.
Labour – on the other hand – already has a policy to increase housing by 200,000 units per year. It supports social housing. It wants to cap rent increases in the private sector, and its plan to cut the amount spent on housing benefit is based on increasing wages so that fewer people need it, rather than increasing the number of people who are homeless.
The numbers speak for themselves: Under ‘Adequacy of safety-net benefits’, EVERY SINGLE INCOME GROUP has lost out. While others have suffered a great percentage drop, single working-age people remain the least able to make ends meet.
“How much money do you need for an adequate standard of living?”
That is the question posed every year by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation – and every year the organisation calculates how much people have to earn – taking into account their family circumstances, the changing cost of these essentials and changes to the tax and benefit system – to reach this benchmark.
A lone parent with one child now needs to earn more than £27,100 per year – up from £12,000 in 2008. A couple with two children need to earn more than £20,200 each, compared to £13,900 each in 2008. Single working-age people must now earn more than £16,200, up from £13,500 in 2008;
Despite social and economic change, the list of goods and services different families need to live to an adequate level is very similar to that of the original study in 2008 – but people’s ability to afford them has declined. Overall the cost of a basket of essential items has risen by a massive 28 per cent over six years – much higher than the 19 per cent rise claimed by the official Consumer Price Index – while average wages have increased by just nine per cent and the minimum wage 14 per cent;
Increased tax allowances have eased the pressure somewhat for some households, but the freeze to child benefit and ongoing cuts in tax credits have outweighed this for low-earning families with children.
Out-of-work benefits have fallen further and now provide just 39 per cent of what single, working-age people need to reach a Minimum Income Standard.
On the other hand, pensioner couples who claim all their allowances receive 95 per cent of the amount required.
The bottom line is that the Conservative-led government has been hammering the working poor and people on benefits, while claiming to be helping them. The minimum income necessary for an adequate living standard, according to JRF research, is no less than two-and-a-half-times what people on benefits receive. That is an appalling disparity in the sixth-richest country in the world.
It also creates a danger that more people will look to loan suppliers like the government’s favourite (Wonga) for short-term help – at the cost of going into disastrous long-term debt.
Slow earnings growth and price increases have made all households worse off on average, relative to the MIS, the report has found.
The conclusion is a disaster for the Coalition’s “hardworking” people: “In the past six years the more important determinants of whether low-income households can afford the minimum budget have been the increasing cost of living relative to earnings and benefit cuts for households in and out of work.
“For working families with children, if these cuts continue, the opportunity to reach an acceptable living standard may not improve, even as wages start rising again in real terms.”
Iain Duncan Smith wants to talk about child poverty – but how can we take him seriously when he starts the discussion with a lie?
“Recent analysis reveals that children are three times as likely to be in poverty in a workless family and there are now fewer children living in workless households than at any time since records began, having fallen by 274,000 since 2010,” according to the Department for Work and Pensions’ press release on the new consultation.
According to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF), child poverty will rise from 2.5 million to 3.2 million during the 2010-2015 Parliament – around 24 per cent of all the children in the UK. By 2020, if the rise is not stopped, it will increase to four million – around 30 per centof all children in the UK.
Under the Coalition government, the number of people in working families who are living in poverty – at 6.7 million – has exceeded the number in workless and retired families who are in poverty – 6.3 million – for the first time.
The Joseph Rowntree Foundation has measured poverty, using several indicators, for more than 15 years; its figures are far more likely to be accurate than those of the government, which is still defining poverty as an income of less than 60 per cent of median (average) earnings. Average earnings are falling, so fewer people are defined as being in poverty – but that doesn’t make the money in their pockets go any further.
“The previous government’s target to halve child poverty by 2010 was not achieved,” states the DWP press release. Then it comes out with more nonsense: “The government is committed to ending child poverty in the UK by 2020 and the draft child poverty strategy sets out the government’s commitment to tackle poverty at its source.” From the JRF figures alone, we know that government policy is worsening the situation – or has everyone forgotten that 80,000 children woke up homeless last Christmas morning?
Let’s look at the government’s plans.
The DWP claims “reforming the welfare system through Universal Credit… will lift up to 300,000 children out of poverty, and cover 70 per cent of childcare costs for every hour worked”. But we know that Universal Credit is effectively a benefit cut for everyone put onto it; they won’t get as much as they do on the current benefits, and the one per cent uprating limit means falling further into poverty every year. Also, we found out this week that the housing element will be subject to sanctions if people in part-time jobs cannot persuade their employers to give them more hours of work. The claim is ridiculous.
The DWP claims the government will will increase investment in the Pupil Premium, provide free school meals for all infant school children from September this year, improve teacher quality, fund 15 hours of free early education places per week for all three- and four-year-old children and extend 15 hours of free education and care per week to two-year-olds from low income families. None of these measures will do anything to “tackle poverty at its source”. Tackling poverty at its source means ending the causes of poverty, not putting crude metaphorical sticking-plasters over the effects – which could be removed at any time in the future.
The DWP claims the government will cut tax for 25 million people by increasing the personal tax allowance, and cut income tax for those on the minimum wage by almost two-thirds. This means people will have more money in their pocket – but will it be enough, when benefit cuts and sanctions are taken into account? Will their pay increase with the rate of inflation? There is no guarantee that it will. And this move means the government will collect less tax, limiting its ability to provide services such as poverty-reduction measures.
The DWP claims the government will reduce water and fuel costs, and attack housing costs by building more homes. The first two measures may be seen as responses to aggressive policy-making by the Labour Party, and the last will only improve matters if the new dwellings are provided as social housing. Much of the extra spending commitment is made for 2015 onwards, when the Conservative-led Coalition may not even be in office.
These are plans to prolong poverty, not end it.
It is notable that the DWP press release repeats many of the proposals in an attempt to pretend it is doing more. Take a look at the list and count for yourself the number of times it mentions fuel/energy bills (three times) and free school meals (twice).
In fact, the only measures that are likely to help reduce the causes of poverty are far down the list: Increasing access to affordable credit by expanding credit unions and cracking down on payday lending (at the very bottom – and we’ll have to see whether this really happens because payday lenders are generous donors to the Conservative party); and reviewing – mark that word, ‘reviewing’ – the national minimum wage, meaning that the government might increase the minimum wage in accordance with Low Pay Commission recommendations.
The DWP press release quotes Iain Duncan Smith, who said the consultation re-states the government’s commitment to tackle poverty at its source, “be it worklessness, family breakdown, educational failure, addiction or debt”.
The measures he has proposed will not improve anybody’s chance of finding a job, nor will they prevent family breakdown, or addiction. The plans for education have yet to be tested and may not work. The plan for debt involves annoying Conservative Party donors.
The JRF has responded to the consultation diplomatically, but there can be no mistaking the impatience behind the words of Chris Goulden, head of poverty research. He said: “Given that it has been over a year since the initial consultation on child poverty measures, we are disappointed that the government is now going to take even longer to agree what those indicators will be.
“With one in four families expected to be in poverty by 2020, a renewed strategy to address child poverty is vital. Any effective strategy should be based on evidence and contain measures to reduce the cost of living and improve family incomes. However, until those measures are agreed, it is difficult to see how the government can move forward.”
Don’t be too concerned about moving forward, Chris.
Cardinal-designate Vincent Nichols, who has attacked fellow Catholic Iain Duncan Smith’s benefit cuts as a “disgrace”. [Image: Liverpool Echo]
Does anybody else have the feeling that Vincent Nichols, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Westminster, was only waiting for the Pope to name him a Cardinal-designate before sinking his teeth into the UK’s Conservative-led Coalition government?
One gets the impression he feels secure that the new position means his words now carry sufficient weight – and they are weighty words indeed.
“People do understand that we do need to tighten our belts and be much more responsible and careful in public expenditure,” said the Archbishop to the Telegraph.
“But I think what is happening is two things: one is that the basic safety net that was there to guarantee that people would not be left in hunger or in destitution has actually been torn apart.
“It no longer exists and that is a real, real dramatic crisis.
“And the second is that, in this context, the administration of social assistance, I am told, has become more and more punitive.
“So if applicants don’t get it right then they have to wait for 10 days, for two weeks with nothing – with nothing.
“For a country of our affluence, that quite frankly is a disgrace.”
“Hunger”, “destitution”, “crisis” – “a disgrace”. You cannot accuse this man of mincing his words!
They come almost a year after the (Anglican) Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Reverend Justin Welby, together with the Archbishop of York and 43 bishops, launched their own attack on changes to social security, saying they would have a “deeply disproportionate” effect on children and families.
Mr Welby had himself only recently taken the Church of England’s most senior office.
Speaking to the Telegraph on March 9 last year, 12 days before his enthronement, he said: “As a civilised society, we have a duty to support those among us who are vulnerable and in need. When times are hard, that duty should be felt more than ever, not disappear or diminish.
“It is essential that we have a welfare system that responds to need and recognises the rising costs of food, fuel and housing.
“These changes will mean it is children and families who will pay the price … rather than the Government.”
The Department for Work and Pensions laughed off Mr Welby’s concerns.
But Iain Duncan Smith, the Secretary of (or “in a”) State for Work and Pensions, is – or is at least supposed to be – a devout Catholic. How could he ignore such harsh criticism from the most senior member of his Church in the United Kingdom?
Very easily, it seems.
Iain Duncan Smith has not deigned to respond. Perhaps he has a belief – he does seem to rely on them a lot, now, doesn’t he? – that he is doing more for the people of this country than the Archbishops. There’s a word for this condition that’s slipping my mind for a moment… no – I’ve got it.
A ‘Messiah’ complex – a state of mind in which an individual holds a belief that they are, or are destined to become, a saviour.
‘Messiah’ trumps ‘Archbishop’ so IDS has chosen to ascend above the debate, leaving its resolution to his trusty DWP spokesperson, who came out with the usual lies.
“Our welfare reforms will transform the lives of some of the poorest families in our communities with Universal Credit making three million households better off and lifting hundreds of thousands of children out of poverty,” wittered the spokesperson.
To disprove these words, let’s turn to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, the social policy research charity that seeks to understand the causes of social problems, identify ways of overcoming them, and show how social needs can be met. This organisation has stated – repeatedly – that Universal Credit in its current form will create “increased risks of budgeting problems, debt, arrears and ultimately financial exclusion”.
The same organisation quotes research from the Institute of Fiscal Studies (IFS) which states that, under current Coalition government policies, rather than hundreds of thousands of children being lifted out of poverty, by 2020 more than one million more children will be in poverty than when the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats slithered into office by the back door in 2010.
So who do you believe? Come to that, what does Iain Duncan Smith really believe?
The DWP spokesperson said: “It’s wrong to talk of removing a safety net when we’re spending 94bn a year on working age benefits and the welfare system supports millions of people who are on low incomes or unemployed so they can meet their basic needs.”
But we know that Iain Duncan Smith has inflicted £28 billion of cuts on people receiving benefits from his Department for Work and Pensions. If another IFS statement – that this represents only two-fifths of the Coalition’s cuts plan – is accurate, then the total amount he’ll want to cut is a staggering £70 billion.
And he wants his people to talk about the money he’s spending, rather than the effect he’s having. So, what does he believe?
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Calls for a ‘commission of inquiry’ into the impact of the government’s changes to social security entitlements on poverty have won overwhelming support from Parliament.
The motion by Labour’s Michael Meacher was passed with a massive majority of 123 votes; only two people – David Nuttall and Jacob Rees-Mogg – voted against it.
The debate enjoyed cross-party support, having been secured by Mr Meacher with Sir Peter Bottomley (Conservative) and John Hemming (Liberal Democrat).
Introducing the motion, Mr Meacher said: “It is clear that something terrible is happening across the face of Britain. We are seeing the return of absolute poverty, which has not existed in this country since the Victorian age more than a century ago. Absolute poverty is when people do not have the money to pay for even their most basic needs.”
He said the evidence was all around:
There are at least 345 food banks and, according to the Trussell Trust, emergency food aid was given to 350,000 households for at least three days in the last year.
The Red Cross is setting up centres to help the destitute, just as it does in developing countries.
Even in prosperous areas like London, more than a quarter of the population is living in poverty.
According to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, for the first time, the number of people in working families who are living in poverty, at 6.7 million, is greater than the number of people in workless and retired families who are living in poverty, at 6.3 million.
Child poverty will rise from 2.5 million to 3.2 million during this Parliament, around 24 per cent of children in the UK. By 2020, if the rise is not stopped, it will increase to four million – around 30 per cent of children in the UK.
The use of sanctions depriving people of all their benefits for several weeks at a time, had increased by 126 per cent since 2010 and 120 disabled people who had been receiving jobseeker’s allowance had been given a three-year fixed duration sanction in the previous year.
There are now more than 2,000 families who have been placed in emergency bed-and-breakfast accommodation after losing their homes.
The per cent rise in the overall homelessness figures last year included nearly 9,000 families with children, which is the equivalent of one family losing their home every 15 minutes.
A third of families spent less than £20 a week on food and that the average spend on food per person per day was precisely £2.10. That is a third less than those families were able to afford three months before that.
The proportion of households that had to make debt repayments of more than £40 a week had doubled and the average level of debt was £2,250.
A third of families had council tax debt.
2.7 million people had lost out through the Government’s changes to council tax benefit – many of them disabled people, veterans and some of the most vulnerable in our communities.
Households were having to spend 16 per cent more on gas and electricity.
There are 2.5 million people who have been unemployed for the best part of two years, and there were 562,000 vacancies when the debate took place (Monday), so four out of five of those who are unemployed simply cannot get a job whatever they do.
Cuts to local authorities mean many home care visits are limited to 15 minutes.
The 10 per cent of local authorities that are the most deprived in the country face cuts six times higher than those faced by the 10 per cent that are the most affluent.
60 per cent of benefit cuts fall on those who are in work.
Mr Meacher said the biggest cause of absolute poverty was the huge rise in sanctioning, often for trivial reasons such as turning up five minutes late for a job interview or the Work Programme:
A dyslexic person lost his Jobseekers Allowance because his condition meant that in one fortnightly period he applied for nine jobs, not 10. He was trying to pay his way and already had work, but it provided only an extremely low income.
The jobcentre didn’t record that a claimant had informed them that he was in hospital when he was due to attend an appointment and he was sanctioned.
A claimant went to a job interview instead of signing on at the jobcentre because the appointments clashed – and was sanctioned.
A claimant had to look after their mother who was severely disabled and very ill – and was sanctioned.
A Job Centre sent the letter informing a claimant of an interview to their previous address, despite having been told about the move. The claimant was sanctioned.
A claimant was refused a job because she was in a women’s refuge, fleeing domestic violence and in the process of relocating, but I was still sanctioned.
Mr Meacher also quoted what he called a classic: “I didn’t do enough to find work in between finding work and starting the job.”
The latest DWP figures suggest that more than one million people have been sanctioned in the past 15 months and deprived of all benefit and all income. “Given that the penalties are out of all proportion to the triviality of many of the infringements, and given that, as I have said, four out of five people cannot get a job whatever they do, the use of sanctioning on this scale, with the result of utter destitution, is — one struggles for words — brutalising and profoundly unjust,” said Mr Meacher.
Other reasons for the rise in absolute poverty included:
Delays in benefit payments.
The fact that it is impossible for many poor and vulnerable people to comply with new rules – for example a jobseeker who asked to downsize to a smaller flat who was told he must pay two weeks’ full rent upfront before getting housing benefit. He does not have the funds to do so and is stuck in a situation where his benefits will not cover his outgoings due to the Bedroom Tax.
The Bedroom Tax, which applies to around 667,000 households, and two-thirds of those affected are disabled. More than 90 per cent of those affected do not have smaller social housing to move into.
The Benefit Cap, imposed on a further 33,000 households.
Mistakes by the authorities; up to 40,000 working-age tenants in social housing may have been improperly subjected to the Bedroom Tax because of DWP error (although Iain Duncan Smith claims a maximum of 5,000).
Mr Meacher said: “The Chancellor’s policy of keeping 2.5 million people unemployed makes it impossible for them to find work, even if there were employers who would be willing to take them, and the 40 per cent success rate of appeals shows how unfair the whole process is.”
Responding to a comment from David TC Davies (Conservative) that those who are not looking for work must realise there will be consequences, particularly when a million people have been able to come to the UK from eastern Europe and find work, Mr Meacher said, “Those who come to this country are more likely to be employed and take out less in benefits than many of the indigenous population.”
He asked: “Is all this brutality towards the poor really necessary? Is there any justification in intensifying the misery, as the Chancellor clearly intends, by winding up the social fund and, particularly, by imposing another £25 billion of cuts in the next Parliament, half of that from working-age benefits?
“After £80 billion of public spending cuts, with about £23 billion of cuts in this Parliament so far, the deficit has been reduced only at a glacial pace, from £118 billion in 2011 to £115 billion in 2012 and £111 billion in 2013. Frankly, the Chancellor is like one of those first world war generals who urged his men forward, over the top, in order to recover 300 yards of bombed-out ground, but lost 20,000 men in the process. How can it be justified to carry on imposing abject and unnecessary destitution on such a huge scale when the benefits in terms of deficit reduction are so small as to be almost derisory?”
Suggested alternatives to the punitive austerity programme of cuts came thick and fast during the debate. Challenged to explain what Labour’s Front Bench meant by saying they would be tougher on welfare than the Tories, Mr Meacher said: “As the shadow Chancellor has made clear on many occasions, is that we need public investment. We need to get jobs and growth. That is the alternative way: public investment in jobs, industry, infrastructure and exports to grow the real economy, not the financial froth, because that would cut the deficit far faster than the Chancellor’s beloved austerity.”
He asked: “How about the ultra-rich — Britain’s 1,000 richest citizens — contributing just a bit? Their current remuneration — I am talking about a fraction of the top 1 per cent — is £86,000 a week, which is 185 times the average wage. They received a windfall of more than £2,000 a week from the five per cent cut in the higher rate of income tax, and their wealth was recently estimated by The Sunday Times at nearly half a trillion pounds. Let us remember that we are talking about 1,000 people. Their asset gains since the 2009 crash have been calculated by the same source at about £190 billion.
“These persons, loaded with the riches of Midas, might perhaps be prevailed upon to contribute a minute fraction of their wealth in an acute national emergency, when one-sixth of the workforce earns less than the living wage and when one million people who cannot get a job are being deprived of all income by sanctioning and thereby being left utterly destitute.
“Charging the ultra-rich’s asset gains since 2009 to capital gains tax would raise more than the £25 billion that the Chancellor purports to need. I submit that it would introduce some semblance of democracy and social justice in this country if the Chancellor paid attention to this debate and thought deeply about what he is doing to our country and its people.”
Ronnie Campbell (Blyth Valley, Lab) suggested that the Government might save a lot more if its members “showed the same energy and enthusiasm for getting those who evade their taxes and run to tax havens as they do for going after the poor, the sick and people on the dole”.
Against this, David TC Davies offered insults and distortions of the facts, quoting the Daily Mail as though it provided an accurate account of current events: “Members of the shadow Cabinet might need a boxing referee to sort out their disputes at the moment, as we read today in the Daily Mail.”
He said: “We took office with a deficit of £160 billion and a debt that was rising rapidly to £1 trillion. That was after years of overspending in good times, as well as in bad, by Labour, a cheap money supply and lax banking regulation under the former Government.” Labour’s spending, up until the financial crisis, was always less than that of the previous Conservative administration; Gordon Brown and Tony Blair both ran a lower deficit than John Major and Margaret Thatcher, and at one point actually achieved a surplus, which is something that the Conservatives had not managed in the previous 18 years. While Mr Davies here complained about the “lax banking regulation”, Conservatives supported it at the time and in fact demanded more DE-regulation, which would have made the financial crisis worse when it happened.
“We had disastrous economic decisions, such as that to sell gold at a fraction of its real rate,” said Mr Davies. Yes – the UK lost around £9 billion. But compare that with the disastrous economic decision by George Osborne to impose more than £80 billion worth of cuts to achieve a £7 billion cut in the national deficit. The UK has lost £73 billion there, over a three-year period.
And Mr Davies said: “Worst of all and most seriously, we had a welfare system that allowed people to get into a trap of welfare dependency, leaving them on the dole for many years, but at the same time filling the consequent gap in employment by allowing mass and uncontrolled immigration into this country, which completely undercut British workers.” The first assertion is simply untrue; the second is a legacy of previous Conservative administrations that agreed to the free movement of EU member citizens, meaning that, when the eastern European countries joined in 2004, citizens migrated to the UK in the hope of a better life. Labour has admitted it should have negotiated for a delay in free movement until the economies of those countries had improved, making such migration less likely, but the situation was created before Labour took office.
Challenged on the Coalition’s record, Mr Davies fell back on the Tories’ current trick question, which is to counter any criticism by asking: “Is he suggesting that we are not doing enough to pay down the national debt? Is he suggesting that we should cut further and faster? If so, and if we had the support of other Opposition Members, that is exactly what the Government could do and, indeed, possibly should do. I look forward to seeing that support for getting the deficit down.” This disingenuous nonsense was batted away by Labour’s Hugh Bayley, who said “investing in the economy, creating jobs and thereby getting people off welfare and into work” was the way forward.
Mr Davies’ Conservative colleague Jeremy Lefroy took a different view, agreeing that increasing numbers of people are finding it impossible to make ends meet, and that job creation and apprenticeships were a better way out of poverty than changing the social security system alone. He agreed that sanctions were applied to his constituents “in a rather arbitrary manner”. He spoke against George Osborne’s suggested plan to remove housing benefits from people aged under 25, saying this “would have a drastic impact on young people who need to live away from home and who have no support from their families”. He spoke in favour of councils increasing their housing stock. And he admitted that disabled people faced severe problems when unfairly transferred from ESA to JSA: “A lady in my constituency says, ‘I am simply not fit for work, but by signing on for JSA I have to say that I am available and fit for work.’ She does not want to tell a lie.”
Steve Rotheram (Liverpool Walton, Labour) spoke powerfully about the effect of being on benefits: “Lots of people in my city are on benefits for the very first time. Far from being in clover — it beggars belief what we read in the right-wing press — they are struggling to make ends meet, and the problem that thousands of Liverpudlians are facing is new to them. For many, the idea that they might miss a rent payment is totally alien. They have not done that in the past 20 years, but since May 2010, their individual household incomes have been on such a downward trajectory that they now find themselves in rent arrears, seeking advice on debt management and unable to afford the daily cost of travel, food and energy. Figures suggest that 40 per cent of the adult population in Liverpool are struggling with serious debt problems.”
And he said poverty had health implications, too: “David Taylor-Robinson of the University of Liverpool and his fellow academics have highlighted the doubling of malnutrition-related hospital admissions nationally since 2008.”
John Hemming (Birmingham Yardley, LD) raised concerns about “the interrelationship between the welfare cap and victims of domestic violence, and whether there are situations that need more attention. I believe that people can get discretionary housing payment to leave a violent home, but it is important that we ensure that there is a route out of domestic violence for women. I am worried about that issue, just as I am about some wrongful sanctioning that I have seen. That does not help at all, because it undermines the whole process.” He also called for “a substantial increase in the minimum wage, because as the economy is improving the Government should look at that, rather than maintain things as they are”.
The vote gave huge endorsement to the call for an independent inquiry into poverty under the Coalition.
But with an election just 15 months away, how long will we have to wait for it to report?
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By now, we should all know how these Opposition Day debates go – but Wednesday’s discussion of food banks was one of the best examples I’ve heard.
The form goes like this: The relevant Labour shadow minister launches the debate, quoting the facts that support the argument (in this case, that the rise of food banks is a national disgrace and the Conservative-Liberal Democrat government’s policies have caused it), the government denies the charge – always with the same feeble excuses, backbenchers queue up to tell their own damning stories of what has happened to their constituents… and then the government wins the vote because its members have been whipped to vote against the motion, rather than because they believe it is wrong.
The food bank debate was textbook. Not only did it carry all these features, but:
The Secretary of State responsible, Iain Duncan Smith, declined to speak at all, but turned tail and ran after listening to only a small number of speakers.
Minister of State Esther McVey, who spoke in his place, delivered what Labour veteran Gerald Kaufman described as “one of the nastiest frontbench speeches I’ve heard in more than 43 years”.
As one story of government-created hardship followed another, Conservative MPs laughed. Clearly they are enjoying the suffering they are causing across the UK.
Each of these is a damning indictment of the depths to which the Coalition has driven British politics. But the debate is only half of this matter. Now it is our duty to publicise what happened. Many people may not know about this, or may not understand its significance.
They need to understand that food bank use has risen exponentially under David Cameron’s Conservative-led government, from 41,000 people in 2010 to half a million by April this year, one-third of whom were children. People are resorting to them because the cost of living is rising while wages have stagnated and social security benefit payments have been delayed or slashed. The government promised to publish a study on food banks in the summer of this year, but has delayed publication with no stated reason. The government department responsible – DEFRA – did not even put up a minister to speak in the debate.
Probably the most damning indictment was the vote. The Coalition government defeated a motion to bring forward measures that would reduce dependency on food banks. The obvious conclusion is that this government is happy to be pushing ordinary working and jobless people into crushing poverty – and intends to continue putting more and more people in the same situation for just as long as it possibly can.
We heard that:
People in Slough are fighting each other over discount fruit and vegetables in the local Tesco.
Food banks are visited by skilled workers who are unable to get jobs because of Coalition government policies.
Serious failures including administrative error in the benefit system mean one-fifth of the people visiting food banks are there because the Department for Work and Pensions has been unable to do its job properly.
The Bedroom Tax has hugely increased the number of people using food banks.
“The working poor are emerging as the Prime Minister’s legacy, as millions of people live in quiet crisis.” (Labour’s Jamie Reed).
In response, the Tories trotted out the old, old arguments, trying yet again to sell us the long-disproved claim that Labour forced the country into poverty by mismanaging the national finances. We heard, again, the turncoat Lord Freud’s claim that people were visiting food banks because the items there were free (ignoring the fact that everyone who visits a food bank is referred by a qualified organisation, and verified as being in crisis). We heard, again, the suggestion from our ignorant Education Secretary Michael Gove, that people are turning to food banks because they cannot manage their own finances (good management makes no difference if costs outweigh income; but then he clearly hasn’t been educated well enough to understand that).
Esther McVey’s speech showed clearly why she should have remained on breakfast television, where comparatively few people had to put up with her. She accused the previous Labour government of a “whirl of living beyond our means” that “had to come to a stop” without ever pausing to admit that it was Tory-voting bankers who had been living beyond their means, who caused the crash, and who are still living beyond their means today, because her corporatist (thank you, Zac Goldsmith) Conservative government has protected them.
She accused Labour of trying to keep food banks as “its little secret”, forcing Labour’s Jim Cunningham to remind us all that food banks were set up by churches to help refugees who were waiting for their asylum status to be confirmed – not as a support system for British citizens, as they have become under the Coalition’s failed regime.
She said the Coalition government was brought in to “solve the mess that Labour got us in”, which is not true – it was born from a backroom deal between two of the most unscrupulous party leaders of recent times, in order to ensure they and their friends could get their noses into the money trough (oh yes, there’s plenty of money around – but this government is keeping it away from you).
She said the Coalition had got more people into work than ever before – without commenting on the fact that the jobs are part-time, zero-hours, self-employed contracts that benefit the employers but exploit the workers and in fact propel them towards poverty.
She lied to Parliament, claiming that children are three times more likely to be in poverty if they are in a workless household. In fact, according to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, in-work poverty has now outstripped that suffered by those in workless and retired households; children are more likely to be in poverty if their parents have jobs.
She attacked Labour for allowing five million people to be on out-of-work benefits, with two million children in workless households – but under her government the number of households suffering in-work poverty has risen to eight million (by 2008 standards), while workless or retired households in poverty have risen to total 6.3 million.
She claimed that 60,000 people were likely to use a food bank this year – but Labour’s Paul Murphy pointed out that 60,000 people will use food banks this year in Wales alone. The actual figure for the whole of the UK is 500,000.
She said the government had brought in Universal Credit to ensure that three million people become better-off. There’s just one problem with that system – it doesn’t work.
She said the Coalition’s tax cuts had given people an extra £700 per year, without recognising that the real-terms drop in wages and rise in the cost of living means people will be £1,600 a year worse-off when the next general election takes place, tax cuts included. She said stopping fuel price increases meant families were £300 better-off, which is nonsense. Families cannot become better off because something has not happened; it’s like saying I’m better off because the roof of my house hasn’t fallen in and squashed me.
Then, on top of all that, she had the nerve to tell the country, “Rewriting history doesn’t work.” If that is the case, then hers was one of the most pointless speeches in the history of Parliament.
Labour’s Jamie Reed had the best comment on the debate. He said: “The final verdict on any Government is based on how they treat the poorest in society during the hardest of times,” after pointing out that “the laughter from some of those on the Government benches … says more than words ever could.”
On a personal note, my own MP, Roger Williams, spoke about the food bank situation in Brecon and Radnorshire. It is gratifying that he is proud of the food bank set up by New Life Church, here in Llandrindod Wells – I well remember the telephone conversation I had with the organisers, in which I encouraged them to set it up. I am glad they took up the baton – and that he has appreciated their work.
Rather more worrying is the suggestion that he considers a possible new food bank in Brecon to be only the second in our constituency. There are food banks in many other towns, including Knighton, Ystradgynlais and Hay-on-Wye – with satellite facilities in smaller towns and villages. It is disturbing that the MP does not seem to know this.
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