The poor should be speaking in Parliament
July 24, 2010 Leave a comment
We have of course many experts in the Chamber today, but perhaps the biggest experts of all on the subject of this debate are not present. They are the poor themselves. I believe that they should be here in the Chamber somehow, for the simple reason-and it seems common sense to me-that the views of the poor should be heard in a debate on the poor. It is a question of representation, since those who are poor and on the margins of the mainstream are effectively denied a voice. This is the reason, I think, why we still have something called “poverty” in our sophisticated western society.
I was once a little closer to this form of expertise; I was on benefits myself, specifically income support. This was in Sheffield in the 1980s at a time when unemployment was less reviled than it is now, partly because of the sympathy for those working in the coal-mining and steel industries who had been put out of work.
I suggest that poverty as an experience is actually very simple, even if the bureaucracy that has accumulated to deal with it, including the benefits system, is complicated and public attitudes themselves are convoluted. I think that over a period of decades we have become, with a larger middle class, more aware at least of the idea of poverty, but perhaps less tolerant of those who remain unemployed, in the sense, of course, of not having paid work.
I believe that there are really just two things that a Government should bear in mind about poverty. The first is money. This Government are freezing benefits and capping the housing benefit. Sheffield was then, and still is, cheaper than London, but income support was impossible to live on then; today, with a personal allowance rate of £51.85 per week for the under-25s, who have been hit the hardest by this recession, I would say that it is absolutely impossible to survive on. Whatever you read in the newspapers, it is difficult to survive on most benefits.
The second and related issue is the stigma of being unemployed, by which I mean not having paid work, which is not necessarily the same as not working. For everyone on basic benefits, this stigma is less now connected with unemployment; it is more about being off the map and unvalued as a citizen. I believe passionately that one should be regarded as a citizen whether one is in paid work or not-indeed, whatever one’s status. That means that if you do not have an income, or have a low income, the state should pay you a decent rate on which to live.
“The Government believes that we need to encourage responsibility and fairness in the welfare system. That means providing help for those who cannot work, training and targeted support for those looking for work, but sanctions for those who turn down reasonable offers of work or training”.
Carrot and stick, carrot or stick, it does not matter-this is still, in an old-fashioned sense, a perpetuation of an “us and them” situation for the poor who, in comparison with the poor in Victorian times, are highly articulate and educated and have expectations.
If we were not so wedded to the entirely constricting idea of paid work being the measure of all things, we would solve poverty overnight. However, by these restrictions on benefits, this Government are saying that we cannot afford to do so. Like others, I believe that this Budget owes its inspiration much more to political philosophy than to national need. The Green Party for one, now represented in Parliament at last, believes that we should not be having these cuts at all and that we should be doing quite the opposite and creating jobs in the public sector.
Another example of this same stigmatisation are the powerful television adverts which are supposed to target, in their words, “benefit thieves” but which in fact, I believe, help to criminalise people who are claiming benefits. Just as bad is the fact that no Government yet have run TV adverts advertising unclaimed benefits, which is a little bit like the “finders keepers” rule. Why do a Government who would claim to lift people out of poverty not chase down as assiduously the poor who do not know how to claim benefits as ferociously as they do those who may be claiming too much? It is easy to build up a head of righteous indignation over those who it is said are abusing the system, but are we not truly abusing the system if we do not reach out to those who are poor? I would like an answer from the Minister as to whether the new Government would consider running such TV adverts.
Where should we be looking for answers? Is it appropriate for charities to fill the gap? I notice this week from the Evening Standard that the Government, in a supposed time of national austerity, are providing £1 million of matching-funds to a newspaper editor’s project to dispense largesse to the poor, piecemeal via a number of charities. This is David Cameron’s big philanthropic society in action, turning the clock back to a Victorian society in an age when the poor do not want to be, and should not be, patronised. I am not saying that individuals might not be helped by this, or that charities are not fine, but the proper purpose of charities is, in my view, that they do-yes-a significant job of stepping into the breach when a Government fail to do the appropriate and long-term job that they should do. I would support a Government who said, “We will make all the charities that cater to poverty redundant by such and such a date”.
I can give one example of a government policy that seemed to address the twin evils of money and stigma. From income support, I went on to the original enterprise allowance scheme as an artist. Of course, the scheme did not suit everyone at the time-those who had worked in traditional industries in and around Sheffield just wanted their old jobs back-but a number of things made the enterprise allowance scheme unique.
First, you were instantly destigmatised, because as soon as you were self-employed, you were considered to be working, although-this is the significant point-you might not yet have had any income from your work except for the small weekly grant that you received. Secondly, there was no bureaucracy. The business plan was easy for anyone to fill in. You did not have to be a businessperson to do that and you were not judged according to how the business might do, although some people later became highly successful commercially as a result of being on the scheme. Thirdly, they left you alone-a mark of respect and trust. Fourthly, you followed your dream, or simply continued with your work, for which one might say that the state was paying, although not very much.
Unfortunately, the enterprise allowance scheme did not last. It was watered down and then scrapped as the big stick once more came out, but it is being looked at again. It features in the recent Arts Council England report, Creative Survival in Hard Times. I understand that the Government are taking an interest in the original scheme and I would like to know whether they are thinking about reintroducing it.
I believe that the only way to cure poverty is finally to accept that there will never be full employment in terms of paid work unless the state itself fills that gap and assumes and respects people’s contribution to society irrespective of their income.