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Food Bank Britain, Sharp Elbowed Britain, and Devil Take the Hindmost Britain is not the kind of country of which any of us can be proud
Today’s Lords debates – Thursday 17 January 2013
Taxation: FamiliesMotion to Take Note
Baroness Hollis of Heigham That this House takes note of the impact on families of changes to tax and benefits.
The full debate may be viewed at:
Lord Alton of Liverpool:My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, has a long-standing and well deserved reputation as someone who, both in office and out of office, has championed the cause of disadvantaged people. I share her basic proposition that the Welfare Benefits Up-rating Bill, to which she referred, is both poverty-producing and risks increasing both absolute and relative child poverty. I strongly believe that the Government need to become far more focused on the root causes of social security and tax credit demand and that their priority should be to make progress on full employment, living wages, affordable housing and support for children.
They also need to be much more aware of the impact of their policies on the vulnerable—a point that has been alluded to by virtually everyone who has spoken in this debate—and especially, I would argue, on people with disabilities. The Government should note a report that has been released today, “The other care crisis: Making social care funding work for disabled adults in England”, published jointly by Leonard Cheshire Disability, Mencap, Scope, the National Autistic Society and Sense.
I would particularly refer them to the chapter headed “Turning back the clock on disabled people’s independence”.When the Welfare Benefits Up-rating Bill was considered in another place, Sarah Teather MP, the former Minister for Children and Families, was courageous and right to vote against it. She was also right to say that it is the politics of the playground to paint a picture of scroungers versus strivers. Rather than caricatures, we need to ask how it can be right to promote policies that will lead to a couple with two children earning £26,000 a year losing more than £12 a week while 8,000 millionaires will be better off by an average of £2,000 a week. It is neither fair nor just, or equality of sacrifice or an equitable sharing of austerity, that, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, referred to by the right reverend Prelate, the Bishop of Exeter, in his excellent speech, that some 7 million working families will be on average £165 a year poorer, while another 2.5 million families with no one in work will be £215 worse off.
In this context, the new legislation is the last straw on top of escalating inflationary increases in the costs of food, travel, fuel and heating, and comes on the back of changes to housing benefit regulations, the Welfare Reform Act 2012 and the Local Government Finance Act 2012—all thrown at the poor like a series of hand grenades.
Two nights ago I chaired a Roscoe Lecture at Liverpool John Moores University, and I declare my interest as I hold a chair there. I had invited John Bird MBE, the founder and editor-in-chief of the Big Issue, to deliver the lecture. At the heart of his remarks on Tuesday was the proposition that the creation of a dependency culture has not helped the poor, but quite the reverse. He said that the Government have,
“created a new class of people who are outside society: workless, broken, and lost to ambition and social improvement”.
But he was not suggesting that the way to tackle this culture is to cut benefits before we have tackled the fundamental causes. Mr Bird suggested that 450,000 families are on long-term benefits. I invite the Minister to comment upon a statistic he gave, that only half of 1% of those on long-term benefits go to university or into higher education. If that is so, what can we do about it? Certainly, the disincentive of phenomenal indebtedness from student loans is a major disincentive for poorer families, kicking aside the ladder of educational advancement, with all the concomitant effects that has on social mobility.
Having been the first from my own family to experience higher education and having grown up in a home without a bathroom, and then a council flat—and then, as a student, being elected to represent a disadvantaged community in the heart of Liverpool, where half the homes had no inside sanitation or bathrooms—I have noticed some fundamental changes in the intervening 40 years.
One is the disappearance of fathers from the lives of children and having any involvement in their upbringing. Some 800,000 children have no contact with their father, a point referred by the noble Baroness, Lady Massey of Darwen, in her excellent remarks a few moments ago. Many drift into gangs and drug culture. The Government need to take parenting much more seriously. I support entirely the recommendations made by CARE and referred to by the right reverend Prelate and by the noble Lord, Lord Bates.
The second change that I have seen concerns benefits. Before the 1980s very few people were on benefits. Working class families, like the one I came from, saw them as the Beveridge safety net. The 1980s and mass de-industrialisation changed all that, turning the working classes into workless classes and, all too often, into benefit-dependent classes—which is why, with 2.5 million unemployed and 958,000 NEETs in this country, people without opportunities for education, employment or training, job creation is crucial.
Where is the present approach taking us? Last year, the implementation of the Government’s policies saw a 44% rise in the number of families relying on emergency bed and breakfast accommodation after losing their homes, bringing the total to almost 4,000 people, and a staggering 79% increase in the number of people visiting volunteer-run food banks—we heard this referred to earlier on—with some 230,000 expected by the end of 2013.
This spectre of Food Bank Britain should concentrate all our minds. It represents not only a catastrophic human cost but also stands to create profoundly negative economic and social effects in the long run. Considering the numerous studies linking unmanageable debt to crime, family breakdown, alcohol abuse and mental health difficulties, there are clear dangers stemming from the fact that more than one million people now rely upon payday loans to cover essential outgoings such as utility bills. Similarly, the hundreds of thousands of children growing up in overcrowded homes or going to school hungry face significantly increased risks of education and health problems, presenting obvious challenges further down the line.
In this context it is unsurprising that so many organisations working to support poor families have expressed deep concern at the virtually unprecedented set of restrictions on the welfare system, which threatens further to weaken the safety net, which has been badly holed. The chief executive of the Cardinal Hume Centre, which provides a vital lifeline to Londoners in poverty, recently said:
“Breaking the link between inflation and benefits before the effects of these changes”—
to the welfare system—
“have even been assessed, is a potentially disastrous move that could cause unsustainable hardship for many people who are already struggling to get by”.I particularly want to ask the Minister about the effects on disabled people.
The Welfare Benefits Up-rating Bill alone stands to impact upon the lives of some 1 million disabled people, adding to the pressures already generated by the Welfare Reform Act and associated cuts. One third of disabled people are living in poverty in the UK and the new legislation simply seems to add to their impoverishment. I particularly want to ask about the new personal independence payment, especially as it relates to mobility issues, about which I have a Question down for a reply during Oral Questions next Thursday. An alliance of disabled people’s organisations is extremely concerned about its effects. Can the Minister confirm the Government’s own prediction, made earlier this month, that 27% fewer working-age people will be eligible for the Motability scheme once PIP is fully rolled out? Disability organisations say that the new proposal means that 42% fewer disabled people of working age will be eligible—an average of 200 people in every constituency.
By changing the criteria for the “enhanced mobility rate” from 50 metres to 20 metres, many will lose a vital lifeline. Cars will simply be taken away, while those who are unable to drive, and use their mobility allowance for other means of transport, will be without the wherewithal to fund privately owned cars or taxis. It is sheer Janus-faced double-speak to tell disabled people to bring their gifts to society and to contribute by working, volunteering or being part of their community, and to take away their means of doing so.
I would also like to ask about the new regulations and the failure to include the existing qualifying phrase,
“reliably, repeatedly, safely, and in a timely manner”,the criteria used to decide whether a person can carry out essential activities. Without those words, these guidelines will not be worth the paper they are written on when it comes to tribunals or appeals. I hope that the Minister will give this urgent reconsideration.
To conclude, overall, the impact on vulnerable people of many of these changes is going to be devastating. These changes are too deep, they are coming too fast and they are already undermining the most fundamental safety net through which no one should fall. It is unacceptable that through job loss, disability, illness or low pay, parents and children are going hungry and becoming homeless. But the facts speak for themselves and that is the reality for a rapidly growing number. With food banks and shelters increasingly overburdened, it is now urgent that we repair the damage being caused to families and to our society. That is why it was so right for the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, to put this Motion before your Lordships’ House today. We are all indebted to her for doing so.
Last week I chaired a Roscoe Lecture in Liverpool given by John Bird MBE – founder and editor-in-chief of The Big Issue. It was four days after the tragic and what he called the senseless killing” of two men who were selling The Big Issue in Birmingham.
John Bird is no stranger to violence and crime – and he told me how he had himself once been involved in violent crime culminating in prison. Yet his is a story of personal redemption and change – both changing himself and changing those to whom he has become committed.
Born into a London Irish family in a slum-ridden part of Notting Hill just after World War II, John Bird became homeless at five. Placed in an orphanage run by the Sisters of Charity (of whom he speaks highly) between the ages of seven and ten, he began to fail over and over again in every area of his life.
He says that although the orphanage was pristine and the cleanliness was in stark contrast to their damp hovel over-run with mice and rats, and despite the generous portions of food, the clean beds and clean clothes, none of it could make up for what he calls the “homieness” of his family’s home. “There wasn’t a moment when I did not want to escape it and go back to the shivering under-fed coldness of poverty
After three years in an orphanage he was returned to a family home and he says “then the trouble began.”
From the age of ten onwards he was shoplifting, housebreaking and generally stealing whatever he could lay his hands on. Vandalism and arson were amongst the crimes he committed. “Not only was I poor but I added to the problems of my life by breaking the law.” He says that “For quite a few years I was one of those troubled people who come and go in the prison system.” Eventually, through work he got out of poverty and began raising a family, and today a second one.
John Bird arrived at his conclusions about life through the university of adversity and the school of hard knocks and he has just published his thoughts in a new book called “The Necessity of Poverty” – from which his Roscoe Lecture takes its title. It’s what its author calls “a tough book because it asks tough questions about the process of giving, arguing that giving changes little in the lives of the poor.” Using the words of The Big Issue: is it “a hand up, or a hand out?”
He says that Governments have “warehoused” poor people, locking them into prisons of poverty from which there is no escape: “Governments have created a new class of people who are outside society: workless, broken, and lost to ambition and to social improvement.”
Hovering around the poor he says, “are countless “supposed” defenders of the poor, who see nothing wrong in warehousing people in ghettos of inactivity.”
He remains optimistic but realistic, shaped by experience: “Having lived through poverty, and exited it through my faith and some education while in the prison system, I know that there are thousands of people who could have done the same.”These thousands of people include the 450,000 people in Britain on long term benefits. They include the 2.6 million people unemployed – and the nearly 1 million young people not in employment, education or training. Without a doubt, these are the countless people Britain is failing.
Our country’s dependency culture identified by John Bird is primarily spawned though unemployment. That began in the 1980s when mass de-industrialisation turned the working classes into workless classes and, all too often, into benefit-dependent classes.
Instead of creating jobs and getting people back into work this Government’s policies have hit the poor like a series of hand grenades, one after another.
And what have been the consequences?Last year, after losing their homes, there was a 44% rise in the number of families relying on emergency bed and breakfast accommodation, bringing the total to almost 4,000 people. There was also a staggering 79% increase in the number of people visiting volunteer-run food banks—we heard this referred to earlier on—with some 230,000 expected by the end of 2013. This spectre of Food Bank Britain is a national disgrace. It represents not only a catastrophic human cost but also stands to create profoundly negative economic and social effects in the long run. The Government need to become far more focused on the root causes of social security and tax credit demand and their priority should be to make progress on full employment, living wages, affordable housing and support for children and people with disabilities.
It is hardly surprising that so many organisations working to support poor families have expressed deep concern at the virtually unprecedented set of restrictions on the welfare system, which threatens to punch further holes into Beveridge’s “safety net”. The chief executive of the Cardinal Hume Centre, which provides a vital lifeline to Londoners in poverty, puts it well: “Breaking the link between inflation and benefits before the effects of these changes”—to the welfare system— “have even been assessed, is a potentially disastrous move that could cause unsustainable hardship for many people who are already struggling to get by”.
Many of the changes being driven on by the Government are having a devastating effect. They are too deep; they are coming too fast; and they are already undermining the most fundamental bottom line provisions through which no one should fall. It is simply unacceptable that through job loss, disability, illness or low pay, parents and children are going hungry and becoming homeless. The facts speak for themselves. With food banks and shelters increasingly overburdened, it is now urgent that we repair the damage being caused to families and to our society.
Food Bank Britain, sharp elbowed Britain, and Devil take the Hindmost Britain is not the kind of country of which any of us can be proud. John Bird is right: we should certainly break the cycle of dependency. But the way to tackle this culture is not to indiscriminately cut benefits before we have tackled the fundamental causes and created the jobs necessary to give the hand up rather than the hand out.
John Bird’s lecture may be heard at: http://www.ljmu.ac.uk/roscoe/101110.htm
A comment received from a Disability Rights Campaigner….
I’d like to send some short videos of 3 other women who have been campaigning – all of whom will be affected by the PIP changes – and now also the ESA changes. As will I. Politicians need to see things like this so they can actually realise the kind of people who will be affected. It is far too easy for them otherwise to see what they are doing in terms of statistics, impersonal ideas or words on a page. We are human beings.
This lady has Ankylosing Spondylitis
This lady has Fibromyalgia and ArthritisEhlers Danlos Syndrome
This lady has Ehlers Danlos Syndrome
I also have great fears that there may be more “sneaky changes” in store as there are several Social Security items of business coming up in the near future – http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm/cmfbusi/c01.htm
We are being scapegoated and treated appallingly and it really is terrifying. Another report out today states that 29% of all cuts are falling on disabled people and 15% on social care (which disabled people also depend on). http://www.centreforwelfarereform.org/library/type/pdfs/a-fair-society1.html
For 18 years David Alton was a Member of the House of Commons and today he is an Independent Crossbench Life Peer in the UK House of Lords.
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