How can I survive on just £19 a week, Mr Brown?

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The Independent Online

By Emma Cook

By Emma Cook

17 October 1999

BRYAN WALLIS has walked some 700 miles across Britain and now he's hoping for answers. Nine weeks ago he set off from Iona Abbey in Scotland with little but his rucksack, his placard and a generous supply of corn plasters. Now he's reached London and tomorrow Gordon Brown has agreed to meet him and fellow walkers at Downing Street. "I'm going to ask him why do I and hundreds of other people like me feel like I've been forgotten, overlooked, ignored by the Government? Why am I forced to survive on less than £19 a week? Why do more than 14 million of us rely on benefits?"

Bryan, 33, an unemployed pipe fitter, rests briefly at a village church on the outskirts of London with dozens of fellow Christian walkers. Drinking tea and eating cake, they are about to embark on the last few miles of their walk which will take them to Trafalgar Square today for a rally and then a service in St Martin in the Fields.

In the last two months, they have covered the length and breadth of Britain to protest against poverty, sleeping in church halls along the way. It hasn't been an easy trek - at one point a female walker had to be airlifted to hospital because of a fall. She recovered in time to join fellow pilgrims for the final few miles into London.

The Pilgrimage Against Poverty, organised by the educational trust Church Action on Poverty (CAP), has a single aim; to rid the country of poverty by 2020. Walkers share a mix of faiths including Baptist, Methodist and Catholic and although their cause is motivated by religion rather politics, the two-month protest is a timely reminder of Tony Blair's emphatic promise three years ago; to raise living standards of Britain's poorest by the end of its first term in office. In Labour's third year, the statistics are grimmer than ever. Nearly 11 million people, including 3 million children, live in households with less than half the average income, according to recent figures from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. One in three children live in poor households, more than in any other European country. Inequality in incomes is now greater than at any time since 1880.

"We're talking about debt on our own doorstep", says Pat Devlin, a community worker in Newcastle on Tyne and CAP organiser. "Now that there's a withdrawal of the old grants system, nobody can save for basic items like cookers and fridges on benefit. Instead people are paying back loans with huge interest rates. There's a myth that somehow if people were more educated and bought more fresh fruit and veg rather than convenience food, they could survive on benefits. They can't - it's not possible."

Hundreds of protesters have joined them for part of the route - especially in Jarrow but also, in marked contrast, in Eton, Windsor. "So many schoolboys ran up to us when we reached Eton," says John Dougan, a Franciscan friar from Nottingham who has walked from Iona. "They wanted to know how they could help and we gave them postcards to sign addressed to Gordon Brown." They have handed out thousands of these postcards requesting a minimum income standard and stating that a two-parent family with two children gets £29 less than they need each week from Income Support.

Such facts are an everyday reality for Bryan who lives on the sprawling Meadow Well estate in North Tyneside.

"I'm going to tell Gordon Brown all about the difference in my life in the last two months compared to how I usually live," he says, sitting on a doorstep in the village church, snipping the end of a roll-up cigarette with a small pair of scissors. Christian badges are pinned to the front of his Stussy hat. The youngest walker on the trek, his story is certainly the most relevant and he knows it. "I've been well-cared for, accepted and appreciated. Next week I'll go back to a life with few friends where I can barely afford to eat and I can never go out."

Divorced with three children, Bryan takes home £49 in benefits. £20 goes on weekly gas and electricity bills and the CSA picks up a further £7.50. He lives off a tuna sandwich a day during the week and spends the rest on groceries when his three children visit at weekends. "The last time I bought anything new for myself was five years ago." If Bryan moved away to look for work he would lose access to his children so now he's planning to go back to college and study agriculture so he can run a community garden.

The Secretary of State for Social Security, Alistair Darling, has pledged that the minimum wage of £3.60 an hour would combine with the new working families' tax credit to lift thousands of people out of poverty. But not, unfortunately, single unemployed men like Bryan. "What good is the family tax credit to me - it doesn't apply to men who are separated from their families, losing their benefits to the CSA - something that Labour condemned but still they carry it on." Let's hope Mr Brown has done his homework because Bryan certainly has. He says: "If he could just show that they were doing something, they could suddenly have 14 million people who feel the Government cares about them - which is more than we think at the moment."

The first official poverty audit, Opportunity for All, Tackling Poverty and Social Exclusion , published in September showed that:

The number of children living on the breadline has tripled since 1979.

A quarter of the population live in households with incomes below the poverty line of £132 a week or half the national average income.

A third of all children, 4.5 million, live in poverty.

One fifth of children live in households where nobody works - twice the 1979 level. In France, the figure is 8.8 per cent, in Germany 8.6 per cent and in Italy 7.6 per cent.

More than half of the 5.6 million people claiming income support, jobseeker's allowance and incapacity benefit have been dependent on benefits for more than two years, while thousands leave school every year without even the basic skills.

The proportion of families with dependent children headed by lone parents rose from 8 per cent in 1971 to 21 per cent in 1996. Lack of reliable support from a partner means that lone parents are more likely to be out of work or to be on low incomes.

While most European countries have reduced teenage pregnancy rates, Britain's rate has remained constant at around 45 per 1,000 girls, the same as in the early Eighties.