Friday, 29 March 2013

Breadline Britain

You may have seen 'Breadline Britian' on ITV last night, or watch it here if you missed it: ITV programme 'Breadline Britain'

The programme discussed a report by the Poverty and Social Exclusion (PSE) Unit at Bristol University (and others) published yesterday (see: It repeats research originally conducted in 1983 and repeated several times since, most recently in 2012. This is the longest running research into poverty in the UK. It is based on surveys of what the general public think is 'essential' in today's society and compares that to the numbers of people who are not able to afford those things and have to go without.

The UK economy has doubled in the 30 years since 1983 but those at the bottom of society and their children have been increasingly left behind. Things are likely to worsen further with the introduction of more austerity measures next week - increased social housing rent due to the 'bedroom tax'; reduction and  transfer of Council Tax allowances to local authorities which means more people will be required to pay Council Tax; Social Fund also transfered to local authorities who are replacing it with food vouchers; limiting maximum benefit entitlement to £500 a week; abolition of Disabled Living Allowance and so on.

Sadly we at Children North East are not surprised by the findings of this research because they reflect what children and young people told us during our work about child poverty from children’s perspectives in every part of the north east during 2011.

Children and young people said the biggest problems were damp, hard to heat, overcrowded homes; this report has found 9% of all households cannot afford to heat their homes and 10% live in damp homes. The general public regard good accommodation as the most important essential of modern life.

Children and young people told us it was hard to obtain or afford fresh food and many families could not afford to replace broken household appliances. This report has found 4% of all children and 8% of all adults cannot afford to eat properly; and 26% of adults cannot afford to replace or repair broken electrical goods.

The PSE report also found significant numbers of children lack things considered essential to do well in school such as a computer with internet access at home and to be able to afford school trips. Whilst it is appalling that these things happen in what is still a exceptionally wealthy country - the 7th richest in the world - it is not enough to just moan, Children North East is doing what we can to improve things for children and young people. This month we have been piloting our audit tool for schools to assess how well they include poor children and how to improve, we expect to have this ready for dissemination by the summer along with training for teachers about the impact of poverty on children’s lives.

Thursday, 21 March 2013

Tax the rich, don't punish the poor - here's why

The Baptist Union of Great Britain, the Methodist Church, the Church of Scotland and the United Reformed Church are not usually known for their radicalism so it's surprising they published a joint report this month titled 'The lies we tell ourselves: ending comfortable myths about poverty'. It is authoritative, eloquent and debunks the nonsense I pointed out in this blog last week. In the light of yesterday's budget it includes this comment:

'The Quantitative Easing programme has increased the personal wealth of the UK’s richest fi fth of families by enough to pay for Jobseeker’s Allowance for over a century.'

Full Fact supports the Labour Party's claim that people with an income over £1m a year can expect an additional tax cut of £100,000 a year from 6th April.

Last Friday Ruth Levitas, Professor of Sociology at Bristol University gave a seminar at Durham University, one of her slides showed how the wealth of the country is distributed between income groups:

The data is easier to understand as graphs. This is what the distribution looked like in 1972/1973 when income distribution was at its most equal in the UK during the 20th century.
And this is what it looked like in 2009/2010. Clearly the top 10% have become significantly richer while the poorest 10% have become significantly poorer. In fact every 10% cohort has a lower share of national income than 40 years ago with the exception of the richest 20%. The gap has almost certainly worsened since 2010 under Coalition policies.
Ruth Levitas published the same data in her paper 'The Just’s Umbrella: Austerity and the Big Society in Coalition policy and beyondUniversity of Bristol, UK, 2012. In the paper she suggests that if it chose to the Government could easily pay off the deficit by taxing the super wealthy instead of cutting welfare benefits or public services.

Ahead of the budget this week the New Statesman agreed:
'Choices regarding tax and welfare changes should be taken together, since they are both financial transfers between citizens and government. Decisions should be made from the perspective of who has the greatest capacity to absorb changes. This means that any reforms should target the top half of the income distribution, who both have the broadest shoulders and have escaped lightly from austerity until now.'

And Grahame Morris MP speaking in Parliament on 19th March in the debate about the Jobseekers (Back to Work Schemes) Bill said:

'The Government are creating two nations. They are seeking to penalise and punish the poor for the mistakes of the rich and powerful, in part of a continuing series of policies that are badged as 'austerity'. Those policies are pushing the poorest in society further into poverty.'

Thursday, 14 March 2013

Is the tide turning on public opinion about poverty?

Politicians are not stupid, they echo back to the public what the public is thinking. If the public thinks benefit claimants are scroungers or the poor have only themselves to blame, politicians will say those things. But what if public opinion about poverty is changing, what then? In the last few weeks I have noticed small signs that the tide of public opinion may be changing for example:

The new Archbishop of Canterbury has joined more than 40 Church of England Bishops in an open letter to the Government criticising its Benefits Uprating Bill as an attack on the poorest especially children whom they say we all have a moral responsibility to protect.

Vince Cable MP on BBC Question Time from St. Paul's Cathedral on 21st February, in answer to a question about a single mother with numerous children housed in a very large house, said although the woman in question may have behaved irresponsibly nevertheless what should a decent society do? We cannot allow children to be living on the streets. Michael Heseltine, another panelist agreed, on another question regarding inequality - the huge disparity between rich and poor - the balance of audience and panelists was against further penalising the poor. The mood was the same in Gloucester during the BBC Radio 4 Any Questions debate the following day.

Last Saturday in her regular column in The Times magazine Caitlin Moran wrote movingly about the poor, making serious points about human dignity, living lightly on the earth and a convincing case for giving the poor more money to stimulate the economy.

I have the feeling that the public no longer believe the caricature of 'skivers vs strivers'. Almost everyone is feeling the pinch and most people know someone - a friend, neighbour, relative who has lost their job, or is having to work fewer hours or is under the threat or redundancy, we know they are not 'skivers' but they are in hardship. There is a growing awareness that most people who are poor are actually in work and the so-called 'culture of worklessness' is much more about available jobs and decent wages than personal fecklessness.

I sense too there is growing unease about the bedroom tax and not just from those who may be affected. People seem to be asking can it really be right that in our country people might be forced to move from their established family home, uprooted from everyone they know - neighbours, relatives, friends, schools, GP, local shops - everything that is familiar, for the simple reason they have an empty bedroom?

Here in the North East last week a Housing Company hosted a conference of tenants and others to discuss the bedroom tax. They wanted to point out that for decades we have been building 3 bedroom family homes,  there are very few 2 or even 1 bedroom properties. Where are people supposed to move to? If they are forced to move we could end up with hundreds of vacant 3 and 4 bedroom properties with no-one to fill them. What sort of sense does that make?

Thursday, 7 March 2013

What next for Newcastle services?

Yesterday evening Newcastle City Council agreed their controversial budget proposals during a long, difficult Council meeting. The proposals mean reductions and in some cases ceasing Council services altogether. The Council also pays a lot of other organisations (especially the voluntary sector) to provide services through grants and contracts. The people of Newcastle and those who support them will have to get used to there being less help available. But what exactly will no longer be there, what alternatives are there (if any) and how can people find out where to go for help?

Children North East is in daily contact with families and young people who looking for help with a daunting range of difficulties - everything from domestic violence, childcare, accommodation, mental health, sexual health, drug and alcohol abuse, managing children's behaviour and so on. We always provide help and advice but we are not experts about everything and frequently help people to make use of other services. It is surprisingly difficult to know where to find the help you need and our staff know a lot about other services and often help people to make that first step over the threshold into an unfamiliar service.

We all have our pride, it's hard to admit we need help and it takes courage to take that step and ask, and we don't always know who to ask about any particular problem. Which is why it is so important that there is good information about the services available and that we get an encouraging response when we do ask.

In common with every other Local Authority, Newcastle City Council has an online Families Information Service where you can find out about local services (not just Council run services). It should be an urgent task for the City Council to update this online directory not only for families and young people but also for people (like Children North East staff) who are trying to help them.

At the same time I urge Newcastle City Council with its public sector and voluntary sector partners (i.e. Newcastle Council of Voluntary Service) to 'map' all the present services available for families, children and young people in the City - what they are called, where they are, what they do, when they are open, and crucially how long they will continue to be available. This will enable everyone to know what is being lost so we can plan how to fill some of the gaps.