On Iain Dale’s LBC programme last Friday evening, I was on with the urbane Nadhim Zahawi, Tory MP for Stratford-on-Avon, who claimed nearly £6,000 for heating his stables and £170,000 in expenses in 2012-13. We argued about benefits cuts and rising poverty. Regurgitating Tory propaganda, he stated forcefully that “reforms” enable claimants to move on and up. When Zahawi was nine, his Kurdish family fled Saddam Hussein’s repressive Iraq and settled here. It must have been hard. So the boy done good and done the party good, too. See? They love striving migrants.
I am also a migrant who has found some success. But unlike Zahawi, I cannot forget the hard times, both back in Uganda and for the first years here. For most people raised in poverty, that fear and fragility still lurk inside, ghosts of times past. My mother cooked and sewed for people; my father worked sporadically and disappeared for years. Sometimes the neighbours sent us food because the electricity was cut off and there were weevils in the lentils. My only brother, 11 years older than me, had to leave school and work. He got rich but drank too much, was never able to be happy and died too young. My sister is mentally ill and hardly speaks.
Today, in the seventh-richest country in the world, this government is on an ideological mission to punish and degrade the poor. Those who question that mission are savaged. It is political sadism. David Cameron, George Osborne, Iain Duncan Smith and others inflict incalculable pain on the most dispossessed because they can. The psychological harm to these people and their families is irreversible. Mental-health problems are increasing and services are unable to cope. In the past fortnight, Vincent Nichols, the Catholic Archbishop of Westminster, has spoken up against welfare policies that are leading to extreme poverty and, at the end of last week, 27 Anglican leaders wrote an open letter to the Daily Mirror expressing their disquiet about spreading hunger even among families where the adults are working. Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, went further. Those on benefits, he wrote, are not “scroungers” but people who have no other options.
Food banks are reporting increasing demand and some are seeing people seeking sustenance who were once entirely self-reliant. There are three food banks in Hart in Hampshire, recently named the most desirable location in the UK to live. In my visits to food banks, I have met a teacher in his thirties who is now on disability benefits, a businessman widower who went bankrupt and a young mum from a housing estate whose three kids had eaten nothing for two days. The children were listless and unnaturally quiet, even when they were given a biscuit. She sobbed when we spoke and said she had thought of suicide so that her children could go to homes where the cupboards are full. Some claimants are, indeed, idle or cheats, others are drunkards, smokers and gamblers. That would be true of all classes. But all children still deserve life chances. Remember the Big Society?
Now George Eustice, the “Food minister”, finally admits that “families are struggling to afford to feed themselves”. Well, George, old boy, where have you been? On a space mission to Mars? Or just not peeping out from behind the gold jacquard curtains of your privileged life?
A review on this crisis by academics at Warwick University, commissioned by the Government, was completed last June. Its findings have just been released, after much editing: though privation is indeed growing, it is impossible, say the authors, clearly to link that to policies. Really? Meanwhile, a Scottish government report has found that missing link. We obviously can’t trust those Scots.
Yesterday, “radical” coalition plans were leaked to the press. The Government may reduce energy and water bills and hand food vouchers to the needy. They are running to catch up, or maybe just showing willing. But they are already too late.
In 2010, the Institute for Fiscal Studies warned that by 2013 hundreds of thousands more children would be living in absolute poverty and that we would see the largest fall in median incomes since between 1974 and 1977. Fuel poverty was predicted to kill more than 20,000 people, according to the Daily Mail last autumn. Alison Garnham, chief executive of the Child Poverty Action Group, has repeatedly said that ministers are in denial about the extent of deprivation. But they weren’t in denial; it was part of their plan.
Planned poverty. How can that be acceptable in a Western nation? Unless the Government changes course radically and finds its compassion then those who vote for the Conservatives in the next election will be assenting to policies that humiliate and mortify millions of men, woman and children while they try to survive on starvation wages and punitive benefits. Democracy is, after all, responsibility. Is that what they really want?