The Conservative party would have us believe that the poor deserve to be punished

This week the Tories have proven once again that they are completely lacking in compassion

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The Independent Online

When George Osborne, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, got to his feet at the Conservative Party Conference on Monday to announce a further reduction in welfare payments, this was the situation facing the nation’s poor. About 5.5m adults go without essential clothing. Around 2.5m children live in homes that are damp. Around 1.5m children live in households that cannot afford to heat their home. More than one in five adults have had to borrow in the last year to pay for day-to-day needs.

These are the findings of a major research project funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, which in turn is largely financed by the Government. In other words, this data is official.

What in effect Mr. Osborne said was that if the Conservative Party wins next year’s General Election, then some of the further reductions in the budget deficit that Mr Osborne believes is necessary would be carried through at the expense of the poor themselves. For most welfare payments - including child benefit, tax credits, jobseeker’s allowance, housing benefit and income support - would be frozen in April 2016 for two years. They are currently rising by 1 per cent a year.

This freeze would hit the poorest third in society most and see in-work families with children lose as much as £490 a year in child benefit and tax credits. A joint-earning couple with one child, both earning £13,000 a year, would be £354.20 a year worse off through the loss of child benefit and tax credits. A family with two children and one earner on £25,000 would be £495 a year worse off.

Some 10m households would be affected, and the extraordinary thing is that in about half these cases, the adults would be in work. These are not scroungers and neither do they have bedroom blinds drawn down at 10 o’clock in the morning because they are still asleep. They get up early, they often travel long distances, and they work long and unsocial hours. Some even fit in a second job when one comes up. These are people who deserve our sympathy and understanding for the hard lives they lead. Yet they are in Mr. Osborne’s sights.

 

The other 5m households have no work, but why is that? Not on the whole because they are work shy. Take young people aged 16-24. In the period May to June last year, some 960,000 were unemployed. But since then over a fifth of them (213,000) have found jobs.

But most of the unemployed, I would say, are the hapless victims of economic forces outside their control and indeed beyond the reach of government. The new digital technologies will go on saving labour. Globalisation will go on turning the world into a vast single market where prices are on a downward trend and profits increasingly hard to secure. And hungry developing countries will go on bidding up the prices of food commodities. So wage rates will be slow to rise, spending power will be squeezed and the qualifications required for securing a job will be set higher and higher.

It is not so much that schools cannot prepare children for employers’ rising demands but rather that children from poor families cannot necessarily benefit from excellent teaching even when it is on offer. A recent study reveals that children on free school meals lag just as far behind their richer peers in good schools as in bad schools. “ Children who grow up in poverty may do less well in education because they have parents who are more stressed, less able to afford educational activities and resources and less well-placed to help them with their homework.” the report says.

So civil society will have to continue applying balm to the wounds inflicted by Conservative social policy. I am thinking of the Trussell Trust, which partners with churches and communities to open new foodbanks nationwide. It has 420 in operations and its aim is to have one in every town. Or FareShare, which redistributes surplus food to hundreds of local charities across the UK. The majority of these charities and projects cook the food they receive on site so that they can provide vital and nutritious meals to vulnerable individuals, families and children. And then one can add long established national charities such as Shelter, the Children’s Society and Save the Children.

And so, as Alastair Campbell once remarked about Mr. Blair’s premiership that “We don’t do God”, one can safely say of Mr. Osborne and the Conservative Government that “they don’t do compassion”. Or to quote a pre-war Conservative Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, they are like “a lot of hard-faced men who look as if they had done well out of the war”.

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