Editor-At-Large: Debt is never the way to ease poverty

Personal borrowing is at record levels, and the poorest are the worst affected. So much for Labour's promise to families
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The Independent Online

You know there really must be something wrong when even a bloke as patently dumb as Guy Ritchie cottons on. He's told a journalist: "House prices... just go up... and the natives of England are being left behind. Anyone who has tried to buy a house in central London knows it's almost impossible unless you've got ten million quid." Luckily, when his family outgrew their £7m Marylebone mansion, Mrs Ritchie could afford to stump up £6m to buy the house next door, so Guy's problem has been solved.

For the majority of ordinary Brits not lucky enough to have shacked up with a pop star, money is something we borrow, and over the past decade we seem to have borrowed more and more and more of it, with no regard for the real cost of meeting our aspirations.

It's not often I agree with the Archbishop of Canterbury, but he hit the nail on the head last week when he made a speech about high levels of personal debt and criticised the lack of financial education in schools and colleges. We dish out thousands in student loads to teenagers who generally can't add up properly without a calculator, can't understand what a percentage point is, and whose grasp of interest rates is non-existent – all in the name of education for all. As a result, we have saddled a generation of young people with levels of debt their (arguably) less well-educated parents never had to contemplate.

On top of that, the rise in property prices has made the notion of this generation's buying a home of their own virtually impossible, and renting somewhere almost as unaffordable, unless it's situated somewhere out on the boondocks. Trapped in their childhood bedrooms, young people probably have a smaller living space (and fewer amenities) than many prisoners.

Eleven years of a Labour government that promised to eradicate child poverty has actually seen the gap between rich and poor widen, while we have become one of the most debt-ridden societies on the planet, owing over one and a half trillion pounds.

With the bulk of personal borrowing tied up in mortgages, there's every possibility of a huge financial crisis on the horizon for thousands of homeowners, who are paying increased fuel, power and food costs on top of mortgage repayments and credit card bills.

Unsurprisingly, last week an opinion poll showed Labour's popularity at the lowest level in 21 years, and figures released for last March show that the number of mortgages granted has fallen to the same level as it was when the Government came to power in 1997. Even if you can raise the higher deposit to buy a home, there's no guarantee you'll be considered a suitable credit risk to cash-strapped lenders and building societies.

Meanwhile, the Prime Minister frets about how to compensate those on low incomes who will suffer with the removal of the 10p tax band. Financial experts have predicted that as many as 5.3 million could be affected – and that's a lot of voters when your majority is slipping away. The Prime Minister can bluster about leading the party that deals with poverty – but on the current evidence he's facilitated a cash-poor credit-obsessed culture, where people can too easily swap one debt for another, at an even more punitive rate.

While politicians fret about whether non-doms can afford to pay £30,000 a year tax (a complete joke), and manage to ease the stresses of their job by employing their nearest and dearest on whacking salaries, a large amount of their constituents are racking up debts they will never be able to repay during their lifetimes by legal means.

Debt has been normalised by Labour – and still they talk about removing poverty. They introduce tax credits and fuel allowances so complicated that millions of benefits go unclaimed. The sooner they forget about teaching citizenship and start on economics for five- year-olds, the better.

My friend Linda – talented, modest and kind

The other night I went to see the exhibition of Linda McCartney's photographs which has taken Paul and their daughter Mary, also a talented photographer, several years to put together. During her lifetime Linda dealt with being the wife of one of the most famous musicians in the world with grace and charm, and got a load of carping press.

I adored Linda. She had that knack of taking your photo without you ever noticing. This exhibition will do a lot to remind people of the extent of her talent as a photographer. She loved meeting people and would talk to anyone. She took a great picture of me once in Jamaica when she and Paul had come to lunch at the house I'd rented. I'd told the cook that our guests were vegetarians and would be happy with callaloo pancakes and salad, but 20 minutes before they arrived the unmistakable aroma of fried chicken drifted into the living room. Bridget had refused to accept that anyone would turn down her special chicken wings. I managed to hide the offending pieces of poultry in the fridge and very reluctantly she put together lunch menu number two.

My favourite photo (above) in the show at the James Hyman Gallery in Mayfair was taken outside their farm in Campbelltown, near the Mull of Kintyre. Paul made a telling comment recently, when he said, "Linda didn't go on television to ingratiate herself... her priorities were private, not public." It might seem as if he's making those remarks because of bitterness at his last wife's attention-seeking antics, but the fact is, Linda was exactly like that.

The children and her family were her first concern – her father had been a lawyer for highly successful contemporary American artists such as Pollock and De Kooning as well as many top entertainers. Linda was used to being around talented people. While she was strong-willed and rigorous in her beliefs, she was surprisingly relaxed and self-effacing.

A third-class rail service at first-class prices

Train companies might have made fares simpler but the result is bad news for travellers and good news for their shareholders. There might have been more varieties of ticket on sale than bras in M & S, but slimming down the types on offer to three and doubling the penalties (from £10 to £20) for changing an advance booking was a big mistake.

Who can we thank for this consumer-hostile mess-up? Ruth Kelly, the Secretary of State for Transport. Even worse, the cheapest advance purchase tickets will not be refundable.

The other day, I travelled back from Stoke-on-Trent to London in mid-afternoon, when the train was more or less empty, on Virgin – a journey time of less than two hours. The cost of my first- class ticket, using a Senior Citizen Railcard for a discount was a whopping £93.

If trains aren't full in the middle of the day, then why aren't operators offering flexible, cheap fares instead of penalising passengers? And why should railway staff be entitled to sit and gossip in first class, where most passengers are generally trying to do some work?